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Surveying the sites of Joseph Conrad's early fiction, Agnes S. K. Yeow maps out a critical terrain whose contours are at once recognizable and alien. Grounded in attentive and sustained readings of Conrad's still relatively underrepresented Malayan stories, most of which date from the early stages of his literary career, Yeow's study sheds some new light on the familiar perspectives of art, history, and empire as they have long dominated Conrad studies. With an early nod to Mikhail Bakhtin, Yeow argues that Conrad's Malayan stories, and presumably all of his fictional narratives, are inherently "dialogic" in that they foreground the contest between history and fiction as a "collision of indistinct ideas" (6). In borrowing this phrase from Conrad, Yeow means to draw our attention to how Conrad's stories balance a fidelity to history with an awareness of the ultimate insufficiency of narrative. Yeow finds that what is ultimately at stake in this double engagement with fictional text and historical context is a preoccupation with vision that runs through Conrad's Eastern tales and, arguably, beyond.
For Yeow, vision, whether authorial or readerly, enables a "surplus of seeing" (41) that surpasses both fiction and history and that consequently provides the empowered reader with greater insight [End Page 170] into the political, psychological, and historical dimensions of Conrad's fictional worlds. However, perhaps more convincingly, she argues that at the same time, vision for Conrad is inevitably constructed as unstable, fleeting, and inconclusive, a perspective which signals his unease with the dominant views of Malaya and the East through which imperialist practices are framed and validated. This central contradiction—that vision is both empowering and destabilizing—is not so much a weakness in Yeow's work as it is a reminder of Conrad's much-cited ambivalence both to imperialism and to the idea of narrative "truth." Linking Conrad's narrative fictions, along with the historical sources that variously inform, contextualize, and even undermine them, to the visual politics running through the stories, Yeow highlights the political and cultural underpinnings of a persistent set of tropes within Conrad's novels both early and late.
One of the real strengths of Yeow's study lies in the way that she enacts the very kind of dialogism between history and fiction she finds in Conrad. Recalling Conrad's view of fiction as "rescue work" (10), Yeow too must be praised for her painstaking efforts in reconstructing for us the complex historical, political, and multicultural Malayan environment to which Conrad's fictions respond. Punctuating her readings of Conrad with sensitive research into nineteenth-century Malayan history, Yeow illuminates a largely neglected, yet essential context for Conrad scholarship. This is particularly true of her work on the hikayat, a Malayan narrative form that Yeow convincingly casts as a key intertext for Lord Jim, Almayer's Folly, and other Eastern stories. Clarifying what is at stake in such work, Yeow makes a persuasive case for the formative role of Conrad's Malayan phase within the larger arc of his career. What is more, she implies, the Malayan context, with all of its "verbal suggestiveness" and "contestable ideas" constituted particularly fertile ground for a writer who would persistently preside over fictional landscapes characterized by flux, uncertainty, and inscrutability (14).
As she guides us through these at times dense scenes, Yeow makes profitable connections among an impressive array of Conrad's stories, which taken together "excavat[e] the ironic undercurrents of colonialism, racial politics, expatriation, migration, and nationalism which other discourses neglect to delineate" (41). Though the claim that Conrad's views on these subjects are shrewder than those of his contemporaries is neither new nor as self-evident as Yeow sometimes suggests, what is significant here is the way that Yeow reframes the age-old debate over Conrad's politics in terms of his construction of vision. While careful to point out that Conrad's Eastern tales remain only "implicit challenges" to the "legitimacy of colonialism" (33), Yeow also emphasizes the inherently ironic dimension of Conrad's...