MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 876-878
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Joe Cleary. Literature, Partition and the Nation-State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel and Palestine. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 272 pp.
Joe Cleary's comparative study of "the contemporary legacies and cultural politics of partition" in Ireland, Israel, and Palestine is a contribution to the burgeoning and important area of scholarship that we might call "Partition Studies." Anthropologists, historians, biblical scholars, and, to a lesser extent, cultural and literary critics have revisited the partitions of India, Ireland, and Palestine in particular in recent years. Cleary's study combines a central section (presumably the guts of his doctoral dissertation) of very close readings of a number of novels and one film, with a framing discussion of the historical and theoretical implications of partition in Germany, Ireland, and Palestine. His overarching argument, in similar vein to some of both Edward Said's and Seamus Deane's critical thinking, as well as of recent work on partition by Gyan Pandey, is that the cultural aftermaths of partition "can usefully be grasped in terms of a recurring dialectic of tradition and modernity."
In a chapter that deals with the work of Israel's best-known novelist, Amos Oz, Cleary offers substantial readings of two of Oz's novels: Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966) and A Perfect Peace (1982). Another chapter closely reads Bernard MacLaverty's Cal (1983), Joan Lingard's teen-novel Across the Barricades (1972), and Neil Jordan's 1993 film, TheCrying Game. In perhaps the finest chapter in the book, Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani's Men in the Sun (1963) is beautifully illuminated in the context of the partition of Palestine and its disastrous effects on the Palestinian people, or more particularly, on Palestinian men. Oz's novels are read against the format of [End Page 876] "late imperial romance"; the Irish works studied here are looked at in terms of the "romance-across-the-divide"; and it's really only in the final chapter that the idea of the dialectic between tradition and modernity floated in the book's introduction emerges clearly in a convincing discussion of the "essentially modernist sensibility" of the Palestinian novel. While this book is intellectually courageous, and while Cleary's critical approach to the (rather few) works he chooses to explicate is enormously sensitive and subtle, there are some problems.
The first, at least in the context of Ireland/Northern Ireland, is generic. The literary legacies of partition and of "the troubles" to which that process led, are most clearly manifest not in the fiction of Northern Ireland, but in its poetry. Cleary argues that the border is frequently discursively invisible and undertakes to explain the "curious occlusion of the Border in the contemporary literature of the Troubles." But the poetry of the past forty years or so—from John Montague to Seamus Heaney to Ciaran Carson—is filled with references to borders. Why confine his discussion to a genre that has shown the least interest in the subject at hand? And even if a case can be made (as it can, though Cleary does not make it here) that fiction has been a major literary accompaniment to the troubles, why ignore the form most clearly appropriate—that of the so-called "Troubles Thriller"? Ignoring this fictional genre is a serious shortcoming in Cleary's discussion of Northern culture, especially since The Crying Game, upon which Cleary expends much critical energy, is a part of this trend. A recent bibliography compiled by Bill Rolston has listed almost five hundred novels connected to the troubles published since 1969. Critical work done by Aaron Kelly, Eamon Hughes, and Laura Pelaschiar in the last five years or so on this fictional genre would be helpful here. Cleary's analysis overall might have been stronger had he edited the lengthy treatments of his three Irish texts and included analyses of Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark (perhaps the novel of partition), Eoin MacNamee's ResurrectionMan, and Robert MacLiam Wilson's Eureka Street.