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By Aarthi Vadde. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
National boundaries have always been more porous on the ground than in maps or in traditional discourses at the interface between politics, culture and writing. Trends in literary and cultural studies have been changing for a while now, and Aarthi Vadde's densely written but clearly argued book explores not territories but interstitial positions. It focusses on authors and texts for how they exemplify positionalities that look for new toeholds—for their time, and retrospectively—in dealing with cultural predicaments of in-betweenness. In such predicaments, to favour this or that side of a binary pull proves the wrong choice, because it would be unjust to the complex interconnections between rival claims, and also because it would lose out on the new creative possibilities opened up once the pressure to resolve ambivalence is resisted. Her selection of authors exemplifies a wide range to cultural in-betweenness, linked by the common element that agency acquires a new edge in each case.
The first author she discusses—Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941)—straddled the colonial predicament of an aspiring nationalism that contended with a counter-impulse which would balance the desire for collective identity based on transforming colony into nation with the kind of modernity that would align India with the world at large: a tension captured nicely in Tagore's oxymoron Viswa-Bharati (the world–India). Nationalism and internationalism were both compelling drives for Indian intellectuals and political activists at the turn of the last century. Tagore exemplifies a sensibility mindful of the need to balance the dual pull. His novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), and the essay "Nationalism in India" (1917), provide good materials for a demonstration of how Tagore negotiated between those opposites. But Vadde's attempt to offer a revisionist view of his translations into English of the poems in Bengali is less convincing. Here, the idea is to ascribe to Tagore a postmodern prescience about the inadequacy of translation as something accepted and worked with. That would mean that he was working towards creating a new sub-genre that foregrounded the inadequacy of translation instead of seeking to overcome it. This sounds nice as an idea, but no amount of ingenuity can explain away the failure of the translations to make anything like the impact of the Bengali originals. Whatever one's theory of translation, some bilingual authors are better able to recreate in the target language effects equivalent or corresponding to what is accomplished in the source language. Here, it will have to suffice if I point towards two Indian poets who manged to do this while far better placed historically for a postmodern acceptance of the limits of translation: A.K. Ramanujan (1929–93), who translated classical poetry from several South Indian languages into English with great immediacy and directness; and Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004), who wrote poems concurrently in two languages, either recreating a Marathi poem in an English equivalent, or the other way round, with results that work well, though differently, in the two languages.
Vadde turns next to the see-saw that James Joyce (1882–1941) sat on with the utmost care, managing both the sustenance of, and keeping a critical distance from, either of his two deep affiliations: attachment to, and detachment from, the world of Irishness; willingness to subscribe to, while remaining suspicious of, the legacy of sophistication and cultural homogeneity associated with the idea of Europe. As Vaddhe remarks, "Joyce prized unsheltered styles of writing" (76), and that kept his fiction alert to the dangers of collective projects. Juxtaposing one loyalty to location with another, developing contrasted parallels between contemporary Dublin and the world of Homer's epic, were part of this strategy, which entailed international as well as interracial comparisons, represented stylistically through characters and actions that moved freely between symbolical-allegorical and naturalist-realist modes of narration. Such writing, Vaddhe argues, plausibly enough, addresses imbalances and tensions regarding affiliation from the point of view of someone who resisted allegiance to any form of group solidarity, while always aware of...