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What is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and invention of the Canon. Ankhi Mukherjee. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014. Pp. 296. $24.95 (paper).

What is a classic? Taking her lead from Augustin Sainte-Beuve, T. S. Eliot, and J. M. Coetzee, Ankhi Mukherjee offers an eloquent case for the question’s continuing relevance to literature, literary criticism, and, above all, to the language arts of the postcolony. What Is a Classic? Post-colonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon brings fresh energy to the longstanding study of imperial cultural authority, attending to both the ideological imposition of that authority and the split literary consciousness of postcolonial writing produced in its wake. The canon, Mukherjee argues, is “an achieved anxiety, an imagined unity, an inclusive stance on the diverse literary genres produced within the tradition of literature in English” (216). Rising above the twinned optics of skepticism and condescension towards the concept of a Western canon, this study casts an unwavering gaze on the canon-bred aspirations of postcolonial writers such as Orhan Pamuk, V. S. Naipaul, Tayeb Salih, Arundhati Roy, and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Across the British Empire’s spatiotemporal conjunctions and disjunctions, Mukherjee declares, the canonized literary classic emerges as “a thing of splendid and defensive isolation as well as a textuality mutilated by time over iteration and critical intervention” (214). Mutilation, iteration, and intervention are the historical acts and forces through which Mukherjee’s study establishes that “the invention of modern classics is sustained by a dynamic and variable conversation between the past and present of English studies” (8). What Is a Classic? locates such conversations in the works of a truly impressive range of artists, including the nineteenth-century “Eurasian” poet Henry Derozio, the Nobel laureates Naipaul and Derek Walcott, the contemporary filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj, and the Hamara Shakespeare project in India. These and numerous other artists are bound together by a struggle over whether, as Salman Rushdie once put it, “It is perhaps one of the more pleasant freedoms of the literary migrant to be able to choose his parents” (20–21). Pleasant freedom or torturous exile? History has not exhausted this question, and Mukherjee reminds us that twentieth-century postcolonial literature’s filiative crises continue to exert definitive power over the “formation of an alternative canon for a postcolonial, global age” in the twenty-first century.

Mukherjee’s rigorously researched and passionately argued study is a welcome corrective to misguidedly democratic visions of imperial modernity’s cultural transactions. The move to globalize postcolonial literature can dilute national literary traditions born of violent centuries of colonization, but Mukherjee, attentive to the canon reformations inaugurated by Franco Moretti, David Damrosch, and Wai Chee Dimock, upholds vital, nuanced distinctions between the postcolonial and the global. World literature, she summarizes crisply, “is not so much a canon of texts as it is a mode of circulation” (31), and the term postcolonial “does not … amount to [End Page 255] rooted and antagonistic reprisals of colonial power/knowledge” (220). Her standard-bearers for her keywords—“classic” and “canon”—are, surprisingly and daringly, Harold Bloom and John Guillory. Testing a dazzling array of primary postcolonial texts against Bloom’s oft-derided valuation of difficulty and Guillory’s vision of the canon as an aristocracy, Mukherjee illuminates a historical-ideological reality that critics engaged in the act of “worlding” twentieth-century literature often resist: the unrelenting psychological grip of the Western literary canon in the British Empire’s former colonies. To illustrate how the albatross weight of Western literature—Ovid, Virgil, Shakespeare, Defoe, Dickens, the Brontës, Conrad—hangs around the necks of non-Western writers, What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon returns to postcolonial methodologies that have been occluded by a decade dominated by theories of cosmopolitan, global, and planetary literature. Relying on the now decades-old work of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Abdul JanMohamed, and Frantz Fanon (as well as Patrick Brantlinger, Henry Louis Gates, Mary Louise Pratt, Benita Parry, Jahan Ramazani, and Terry Eagleton), Mukherjee reminds us why center-periphery models of nationhood, culture, and the racial self dominated the first wave of postcolonial theory and criticism. It is an undeniable fact—and Mukherjee’s excellent readings of Walcott’s Pantomime, Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip cement this undeniability—that the Empire’s violent insistence on its aesthetic and cultural superiority wounded generations of writers from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. This study may showcase the lively vernacular canons of twenty-first-century fiction and drama, where “universal truths crossbreed with singular local histories” (213), but Mukherjee establishes imperial education as the postcolony’s vigilant jailer as well as its artistic muse. If she retreads ground broken by Gauri Viswanathan and Sara Suleri in the 1980s and by Simon Gikandi more recently, her conclusion justifies the repetition: institutionalized canons forge identities “that lead through the pain and shame of acculturation and deracination” (7).

The questions of acculturation and deracination structure the book’s two halves. Part 1 investigates how postcolonial writers contest the cultural capital embedded in canonical Western texts. Mukherjee argues that Eliot’s and Coetzee’s essays “What Is a Classic?” revolve around the tension between personality and impersonality that grounds twentieth-century criticism. This tension sets up her subsequent readings of Said’s and Naipaul’s uneasy inheritance of the Conradian literary tradition and of the “unstable sets of resemblances” that comprise Walcott’s poetic oeuvre. Mukherjee’s readings are both striking and persuasive: Conrad’s Harlequin is a “border-crossing and shape-shifting creature who accidentally completes the transmission between oppressor and oppressed” (75); Naipaul’s The Mimic Men draws on Conrad for “a singleness of literary intention that survives the corruption of causes, of authenticity besmirched and innocence lost” (78); and Walcott’s depiction of Jean Rhys’s poetic anomie as a “white hush between two sentences” marks Rhys’s “refus[al] to cross over to a zone of cultural equivalency” (107). Mukherjee moves fluently among diverse literary genres, discussing Ovid’s poetry with the same authority she brings to the resonances of modern drama in Walcott’s Pantomime and the contours of memoir in Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Part 1 of this book thus persuasively maps how a Bloomian anxiety of influence manifests itself in postcolonial classics by “posing de-composition as composition” (21).

Part 2 falters slightly in its ambitions, beginning with a series of questions that appear to have been asked and answered in part 1 (e.g. “Do postcolonial rewritings help revive and sustain the Western canon of literature in alien elaborations?” [113] and “Who writes back to the center validating the postcolonial nation and for whom?” [116]). Mukherjee struggles here to differentiate the work of the earlier chapters from part 2’s readings of Anglophone revisions and adaptations of canonical Western works; she returns, in fact, to Naipaul and Salih and restates several of her earlier points about influence and aesthetic value. This alerts us to the book’s sole weakness, which is Mukherjee’s uneven inclusion of cultural history. Her tour of novels by Keri Hulme, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Lloyd Jones might have delineated more clearly how and when British [End Page 256] imperial influence shaped English literary education in New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and Papua New Guinea. (Earlier, Conrad, Walcott, Naipaul, and Salih also receive only occasional moments of historical context). But the book’s last and most valuable chapters, one on the Anglophone Indian novel and the other on Indian adaptations of Shakespeare, set forth detailed political histories and geographical explanations in their arguments about regional or vernacular canons. Mukherjee’s argument about a conversation between the past and present of English studies is most effective here, as she discusses more than twenty Indian novelists and conducts an interview with filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj, whose Maqbool and Omkara are Hindi-language revisions of Macbeth and Othello. The earlier chapters (as well as a somewhat disjointed, tangential postscript about the future of the humanities in the UK) would have benefited from the kind of careful contextualizing that Mukherjee provides in her work on Indian Shakespeare and Anglophone Indian fiction. Nevertheless, What Is a Classic? achieves a complicated balance through its interrogation of the English canon’s haunting presence: Mukherjee illustrates the artistic agony of creating literature in Caliban’s tongue but also demonstrates that the literary traditions of a colonial past need not preclude original, authoritative, and uncompromised art in the global present. It is this critical balance that makes Mukherjee’s study a well-timed contribution to postcolonial studies, modernist studies, and the growing field of contemporary literary studies.

Urmila Seshagiri
University of Tennessee