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Postcolonial Nostalgias: Writing, Representation, and Memory by Walder, Dennis (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 171-175 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0021

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In Postcolonial Nostalgias: Writing, Representation, and Memory, Dennis Walder asserts that “the rosy, sentimental glow most commonly associated with nostalgia” is certainly not the most telling “part of the story” that his study claims to reveal (3). Here, Walder explores instead and in considerable depth the many ways that writers “shaped by empire and/or colonization” represent the dynamics of traumatic individual experiences in relation to “the wider, collective pasts of family, society, and history” (2). In moments of crisis, as Walder explains, the sweeping activities of dominant powers play their crucial roles, as do unpredictable changes in the human heart. Walder finds a common caveat, or implicit admonition, in all of the writing he examines: it is the ineluctable “importance of remembering the radical evils marking the long histories of empire and colonization, a part of our contingent sense of who we are in the present” (167).

The writers on whom Walder concentrates—V. S. Naipaul, a spectrum of indigenous South African authors, Doris Lessing, W. G. Sebald, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and J. G. Ballard—all testify, Walder shows, to the daunting complexity of memories of individual colonial experiences and to the ensuing ethical challenges that such compromised nostalgias unavoidably pose to personal values. The expressive power these postcolonial writers acquire by exploiting the oscillating present/past/present motions of nostalgia within their narrative designs authenticates their representations, making them aesthetically and historically “compelling and attractive” (164). As Walder observes, “without the element of reflexivity, or self-analysis, the [recollected] past becomes a distorting fiction, lacking the crucial connection to the general experience” (164). And he pulls no punches in identifying many novels and film scripts by other writers “that distort the past, sentimentalizing or sensationalizing the relations between the powerful and the powerless” (165). Postcolonial Nostalgias is an ambitious and riveting work of literary criticism, spanning more than a century of realistic writing and thematically connecting postcolonial representations of Trinidad/West Indies, the Islamic world, India, Japan, England, South Africa, Germany, Nigeria, and China—historically, psychologically, and aesthetically.

Yet, in spite of its topical density, Walder’s book is a triumph of brilliant exposition because it simplifies nothing. Readers are led sensibly, stylishly, and authoritatively through the thickets of relevant postcolonial and psychological theory, relevant twentieth- and twenty-first-century colonial history, and the focal narratives themselves. The book’s introduction clearly outlines its scope, defines key terms, reviews the medical and psychological conceptions of various types of nostalgias as phenomena, surveys ways of connecting longing to history and politics, and introduces the turbulence, even “nightmare,” that conditions the “‘tough aesthetic’ of postcolonial nostalgias” (12). In each of the chapters that follow, Walder historicizes his focal texts and highlights their subtexts through close readings. Walder’s tone is engaging throughout—conversational and relaxed, while no less perspicacious than one might expect of a mature scholar whose immersion in the subject goes back to his early life in South Africa, his university studies in Cape Town and Edinburgh, and a distinguished career in Britain as a professor of postcolonial literature.

In the chapter titled “How Is It Going, Mr. Naipaul?” Walder concentrates on The Enigma of Arrival but deconstructs Naipaul’s treatment of the discrepancies between ‘identification’ and ‘identity’ in the light of Naipaul’s other biographical and travel writings. For Walder, Naipaul’s writings invite readers to reflect usefully on an existential question posed by the eminent Indian novelist and activist Nayantara Sahgal: “Where does one culture begin and another end when they are housed in the same person?” (35). Starting Postcolonial Nostalgias with Naipaul’s accounts of his own successive dislocations and with an analysis of their cultural implications, Walder broadens his discussion to reflect on postcolonial migrants’ anxieties about identity in the many complex ways that Naipaul himself has treated the subject. In juxtaposing Naipaul’s use of visual metaphors (borrowed from De Chirico, for instance) with Naipaul’s statements about ways he has been changed by travel, Walder analyzes Naipaul’s uneasy representation of identity as longing for identification with the ‘other’; Walder does so by comparing Naipaul’s fictional and nonfictional ‘confessions’ in fascinating ways with apposite formulations made about memory and...

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