- Hatterr Abroad:G. V. Desani on the Stage of World Literature
Of all the dreams of global literary culture that have ever been dreamed, probably only a few include a lion eating a raw steak off a prostrate man’s chest. And it is safe to say that there is only one such dream in which the lion is Portuguese-speaking: the dream of H. Hatterr, the hapless hero of G. V. Desani’s picaresque novel All About H. Hatterr, first published in 1948. In the second chapter of that novel, Hatterr is conned into participating in a circus act by an English couple: he must lie down and allow Charlie the lion (trained by a Portuguese man) to dine off—but, he hopes, not on—him. The experience sends Hatterr into hallucinations in which he imagines his own funeral as an elaborate spectacle held in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He sees his own coffin inscribed with honors, from “esqr. (england)” to“ph.d. (st petersburg)” to “nobel prize (international goodwill, peace works and literary writing)” (90–91).1 Hatterr dreams of posthumous global fame for himself as a cultural figure—consecration by awards and degrees from institutions all over the world. He imagines himself as a grandee of postwar internationalism, winning [End Page 466] his Nobel Prize for “international goodwill” as well as “literary writing,” equally recognized by the Soviet Union and the United States and everywhere in between—including a poignantly unpartitioned “U.S. of India.” At the same time, the passage’s mad cavalcade of proper names and languages enacts the kind of cosmopolitan inventiveness that earns world-literary acclaim.
Or, rather, Hatterr’s language might earn such acclaim in a fantasy less comprehensively exploded by ironies. The coffin inscription begins “mailed cash on delivery to westminster abbey” and ends “ex-human, ex-parte, ex-poste facto” (91). As the dream spirals on, it leaves Hatterr no less abject than in the circus show: he ends up on a surgery table being operated on by “Old Harry Himself” (92). The cosmopolitan idealist, whatever his aspirations, is stuck in the cash-on-delivery state; he is at the mercy of mocking audiences and duplicitous impresarios. Desani’s novel repeatedly stages versions of global cultural ambition and transnational synthesis only to satirically upend them by showing how the literary Hatterrs (and All About H. Hatterrs) of the world are subject to the power of those who mediate and receive them.
Desani’s satire proves to be a canny, though partial, anticipation of his novel’s own fate as it has traveled the circuits of reception in the English-speaking world on three continents. The work of mediators and the presuppositions of readers have shaped the reception of Hatterr nearly as much as Hatterr’s own journey is shaped by the whims of others. Indeed, it is the book’s complex reception that makes it an exemplary document of twentieth-century world literature. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the cultural field and John B. Thompson’s concept of symbolic power, this essay interprets the trajectory of Hatterr in reviews, scholarly essays, and other documents of reception as a characteristic expression of the stratified structures and power dynamics of the postwar global Anglophone literary field.
Hatterr is characteristic because it is an early exemplar of that signal genre of contemporary world literature, the formally experimental English-language novel written by a person from a former colony (for example, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children). Metropolitan elite publishing and literary scholarship have tended to suppose that simply reading such global novels, glorious hybrids at [End Page 467] the textual level, would lead to the transcendence of national divisions and hierarchies in literary culture. This supposition underlies much recent work on global modernisms. Examining Desani’s reception history, however, exposes the Hatterresque fantasies underlying this idea. That history must take the mediations of publishing, reviewing, and canon-formation as fundamental to the meanings the work acquires, not as supplements to a “close reading” of the text itself.
As Franco Moretti has argued, text-internal analysis does not enable us to grasp the large-scale structures of world...