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  • The Jew in the Archive: Textualizations of (Jewish?) History in Contemporary South Asian Literature
  • Anna Guttman (bio)

If one of the tasks of both postcolonialism and subaltern studies has been to challenge colonial historiography and reclaim history for the Other, then it stands to reason that the archive ought to have a central place in both of these disciplines. Indeed, according to Sandhya Shetty and Elizabeth Jane Bellamy’s article “Postcolonialism’s Archive Fever” (2000), the task of subaltern studies is not, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak originally suggested, the recovery of lost voices, but the recovery of lost texts. But which texts are actually lost? And to whom? Shetty and Bellamy’s essay uncovers two texts that one might not habitually think of as lost, yet that have, in large part, consistently been the victims of “nonreading” (32): Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Despite their compelling interpretation of these two texts, Shetty and Bellamy also engage in what I contend is a comparable instance of nonreading. Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1996) is among the most preeminent theoretical statements on the archive and is one of the primary source texts for Shetty and Bellamy’s piece. This otherwise very useful article has one glaring omission that, to my surprise, is repeated in much of the criticism that engages with this crucial moment in Derrida’s oeuvre: it makes almost no mention of Jewishness.

Admittedly, Jewishness is only beginning to emerge as a concern in postcolonial studies and is not a subject which Spivak herself addresses. Yet Derrida’s entire essay is addressed to the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and his book, overtly Jewish [End Page 503] in subject, Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. Indeed, the uncertainty surrounding the terms Jewish and science (including Derrida’s provocative differentiation between the adjectives “Jewish” and “Judaic,” which he places at the heart of the archival impulse) are at the center of Derrida’s meditation on the archive. Herman Rapaport goes so far as to suggest that this “mal d’archive,” which might equally be translated as “malice in the archive” or “archive trauma” (69), is suggestive of an encounter with the Holocaust and the many documents generated and preserved by the Nazis who, particularly in the first few years of the Second World War, placed an enormous emphasis on recording their acts of discrimination and genocide as well as on the preservation of reified artifacts of a supposedly soon to be extinct Jewish cultural and religious life (Derrida 69).

In contrast to the theoretical neglect of the centrality of Jews and Jewishness to the imagining of the archive within postcolonial engagements with the subject, such as Shetty and Bellamy’s, and the neglect of the postcolonial in works focused on Derrida’s Jewishness, such as Inge-Birgitte Siegumfeldt’s, Jewishness, the archive, and postcolonialism intersect repeatedly in contemporary literature. South Asian writers of literary texts are embracing Jewish archival material as sources for inspiration, whether these materials are real—as in Amitav Ghosh’s forays into the Cairo genizah in In an Antique Land (1992) and Vikram Seth’s discovery of his aunt’s letters in Two Lives (2005)—or imaginary, as in the fictional letters written to a Jewish lover by the World War II spy Noor Inayat Khan in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel The Tiger Claw (2004) and the letters the eponymous character receives from his interned mother in Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988). The last three novels take the persecution of Jews by the Nazis as their central focus, a preoccupation shared with the South Asian novels Vishram Bedekar’s Battleground (first published in 1939), Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (2005), and Bem Le Hunte’s There, Where the Pepper Grows (2005).

In an Antique Land, Two Lives, Baumgartner’s Bombay, and The Tiger Claw, which are the focus of this essay, all involve the discovery of “lost” texts, but in each case, despite its centrality to [End Page 504] the plot, this archival material remains nonread. I contend, instead, that the depiction of Jewish history and its subjects is used to illuminate South...


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