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Comparative Colonialisms: Joyce, Anand, and the Question of Engagement

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 13, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 465-485 | 10.1353/mod.2006.0056

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In his collection of essays, Conversations in Bloomsbury, the celebrated Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand describes the early beginnings of his novelistic craft as a young university student in England. Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man speaks to him across the divide of culture and nurtures his desire to write: I "recognized myself in the hero of Portrait" he says. In Portrait Joyce presents not only Stephen Dedalus's inner world, compelling to Anand in its own right, but also, significantly, a version of what is taking place within Anand himself. Comparing Joyce to his mentor, the important Islamic poet Iqbal, and his poetic cycle Secrets of the Self, Anand prefers to follow Joyce, claiming him as a kindred spirit and model, if not strictly a compatriot. He decides that "the portrait is a good model for me, if I want to stage the recovery of self . . . in a novel," and resolves to begin that novel almost immediately. Anand secretly determines to pattern himself after Joyce, taking specific instruction not merely from Joyce's mode of narration and his representation of self-development, but also from his rejection of religion or mysticism, and his use of sound to transmit extra-linguistic meaning in prose (CB, 7). From this moment, he begins his effort to forge a new English language tradition in fiction for India.

What sense do we make of Anand's remarks about Joyce? This essay will begin to address the complex intertextual web linking Joyce's Portrait to Anand's early writings, most notably his novel, Coolie, written between 1933–35. In this comparison I will argue that we can see important elements of Joyce's style also appear in Anand's work, especially his insistence on reality rather than what Anand calls "religious illusionism," his use of limited perspective and focalization as a means of representing and critiquing Bildung, and his emphasis on sound as a marker for the uncontrollability of language. Further, I will suggest that Anand's use of Joycean techniques to trace the life of a displaced, wandering coolie highlights the political implications of Portrait. That Anand becomes a follower of Gandhi and embarks upon a long career as a social activist and writer of engagé fiction, even as he remains a follower of Joyce, points to the path between Joyce's experimental prose and the politically engaged novels of Anand. Indeed, the connection asks us to rework and redefine our understanding of engaged writing. Sartre long ago claimed that "art loses nothing in engagement. On the contrary . . . the always new requirements of the social and the metaphysical engage the artist in finding a new language and new techniques." Yet in practice, experimental fiction has often been described as separate from engaged writing, with modernism being distinguished from the more directly political work often dubbed "thirties literature." Reading Joyce and Anand together works against this separation, asking us to consider stylistic experimentation as a spur to new possibilities of engagement while offering modes of political expression not possible within a conventional realist novel.

Further, if Anand, as displaced colonial subject, encounters Joyce's phrase, "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race," as meaningful for his own political situation (and this is the specific passage he cites), then we must also see Anand's use of that phrase as important for understanding Joyce. Thus the connection between the two authors provides us with a new way into the ongoing discussion of colonial textuality from a crucial transnational perspective. The question is not simply a unilateral matter of influence—though to be sure Joyce influenced Anand. Rather, this encounter highlights the multidirectional flow of global literature and culture, where streams of discourse move not just from metropolis to colony, or even back from colony to metropolis, but as in this example, from colony to metropolis to another colony and back again. As Elleke Boehmer points out,

oppositional nationalist, proto-nationalist, and anti-colonialist movements learn from one another as well as drawing from their own internal political and cultural resources or the...

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