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  • Relation and Identity:Milan Kundera and Dany Laferrière Redefine the World
  • Corine Tachtiris

In the Western literary system, "foreign" authors, especially those from "outside" the West, are often expected to serve as native informants, although only to corroborate what the West already "knows." Timothy Brennan describes, for example, the reception of "Third World" texts in the West, noting the work of Fredric Jameson, who "makes Third-World literature an important artefact or record, but an artefact without theoretical importance" (37). Politically themed "Third World" texts gain favor with Western critics, but only in keeping with "metropolitan tastes and agendas" (38). "Second-World" texts, as well, succeed in the West when they feature the ideological over the philosophical or aesthetic. Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešic, for instance, recounts the story of an editor informing her that because she writes "pure literature," her work is unpublishable and asks if she has anything about the war, since publishing anything else at the time would "not be right" "[f]rom a moral standpoint" (141). On ethical grounds, the West thus obligates non-Western authors to bear witness to conditions in their countries, reserving for itself—whose ideological house is presumably in order—the right to "pure" literature.

"Foreign" authors who do not wish to have their subject matter and style dictated to them struggle against the West's expectations. Rather than defending the right to an essentialized difference, however, some writers have made effective use of the opposite strategy: inserting themselves into the West. I do not intend by this a catering to Western tastes and norms but instead an expansion of the geographical and cultural boundaries of the West that force a rethinking of Western identity itself. Neither is this redefined Western identity homogeneous and stable. The new identities created by these authors are akin to Édouard Glissant's concept of Relation, which depends on difference for its very existence. In what follows, I examine the assertion of Relational identities by two novelists, one from the so-called "Second World" (Milan Kundera) and the other from the "Third World" (Dany Laferrière). Both authors experienced totalitarian conditions in their home countries and decided to emigrate. Kundera ran afoul of the Communist Party in Soviet-occupied former Czechoslovakia and had his books banned from 1970 onwards. He moved to France in 1975, had his Czech citizenship revoked in 1979, and became a French citizen in 1981. Since 1991 he has been writing his novels in French, [End Page 178] while he began publishing essays originally penned in French even earlier. Whereas Kundera faced censorship and official blackballing, the threat to Laferrière under the reign of the Duvaliers was much graver. A journalist at the time, he had had one close friend murdered, another jailed, and could only expect to be next. Laferrière therefore emigrated to Montreal in 1976, where his first novel was published in 1985. Before settling permanently in Montreal, he also spent some years living in New York and Miami.

Based on their personal histories, both Kundera and Laferrière run up against certain expectations for their work as it circulates in the West, expectations against which they actively struggle using similar strategies. Laferrière lays claim to an "American" identity—the Americas, not the U.S.—while Milan Kundera asserts a European, not merely Eastern European, one. Laferrière's and Kundera's insistence that both their homelands and host lands fall under these identities enables a re-figuration of the West's geocultural borders and of the peoples "from" there. In this article, I first outline some of the concepts basic to Glissant's "Poetics of Relation," concepts drawn from his own position excentric to the West as a writer from Martinique. "Relation," I argue, serves as a useful frame for thinking of the alternative identities asserted by Kundera and Laferrière. I then describe the theoretical steps that Kundera has taken in his essays to discard what Ugrešic terms the "baggage" of the "EEW" (Eastern European Writer) (137-39). Kundera sets about articulating a new definition of what it means to be "European" through a history of the European novel in order to place himself...


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pp. 178-195
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