- Joseph Conrad and the Orient ed. by Amar Acheraïou and Nursel Içöz
The essays gathered here attest to the enduring appeal of Conrad’s eastern tales as well as to the intellectual challenge that the fiction continues to pose to scholars. The editors Amar Acheraïou and Nursel Içöz are to be commended for ensuring that a wide range of topics and approaches are included in this volume in order to present a broad spectrum of critical insights. As the former notes: “The compelling critical approaches offered in this volume shed light on Conrad’s representation of the east in its manifold articulation: the east as a crucial source of fictional material, as a polyphonic discursive space, a cultural and racial Other, an ideological construct, and a site of western struggle for global commercial hegemony and native anti-colonial resistance” (1–2). while some of the essays can be said to revisit familiar arguments on contentious issues like moral degeneration, the follies of empire and the politics of race, gender and nature, they extend the debates in interesting ways and add more grist for the mill.
Acheraïou’s essay sets the stage by contextualizing Conrad’s Malay world fiction: the Anglo-Dutch rivalry and the vast cast of characters that were caught in the crossfire. The Malay, Bugis, Arab, Chinese, Indo-european, Sulu and many other communities in Conrad’s fictionalized Malay Archipelago do not merely form an exotic backdrop to the follies and fantasies of white men and women in the east; they echo the geopolitical realities of complex power relationships and political intrigues which Conrad had witnessed, heard, or read about. It is important for scholars and readers to understand why the region had stayed with Conrad almost throughout his literary career considering how he had visited the Far east only sporadically in the 1880s and had spent more time at sea than ashore. Acheraïou offers us a glimpse into Conrad’s fascination with the east and grapples with the writer’s construction of Oriental otherness; he also shines the spotlight on free trade as a potentially leveling dynamic in the colonizer-colonized relation while recognizing the underlying irony of such a suggestion.
As for the treatment of Orientals in his fiction, Conrad’s trademark ironic self-effacement when it comes to ethnographic knowledge forms, as Terry Collits and Ira Raja note in their essay on Conrad’s Chinese, part of a “mock-courteous deference to the superior credentials” of renowned Orientalists (240). One such was Bertrand Russell, in the case of the Chinese; in the case of the Malays, Conrad had famously deferred to the scholar-administrators Hugh Clifford and Frank Swettenham. However, as Collits and Raja point out, Conrad’s admission [End Page 228] of near-ignorance with regards to the Chinese points to different ways of knowing: “[Conrad’s and Russell’s] differences then are partly a matter of different discourses of knowledge—which also has relevance for questions of racism and representation” (240). Collits and Raja refuse to be mired by the almost clichéd criticism of Conrad’s racist rhetoric and attitudes; instead, they tackle the constraints that Conrad faced as a writer of colonial fiction representing non-european characters and the creation of Marlow which finally enabled Conrad “to problematize the narrator and make his assumptions subject to critique” (247).
The other essays in the book also address various discourses of knowledge evident in and around the fiction: from religion and film to language and comparative literature. Ted Billy’s essay, “Almayer’s Folly and Victory: Conrad’s Affinity with Asian Religions,” is particularly illuminating and persuasive despite scant extant information on Conrad’s own attitude towards eastern beliefs and philosophies. He argues that “while Conrad’s fiction gives ample evidence to his antipathy to all philosophical systems, his iconoclastic cast of mind harmonizes well with Asian skepticism concerning the excesses of...