- The Postcolonial Epic: From Melville to Walcott and Ghosh by Sneharika Roy
Sneharika Roy’s The Postcolonial Epic is the first book in Routledge’s “Literary Cultures of the Global South” series—a series that, as of August 2019, boasts six titles, each of which rewrites, according to the series editors, the cultural and literary history of the Global South (West-Pavlov and Paranjape). Roy’s work sets up an intriguing premise, arguing that the epic genre has been a sustained preoccupation for some postcolonial writers and that three authors from different historical and geographical contexts—Herman Melville, Derek Walcott, and Amitav Ghosh—each testify to the epic’s “rich potential [End Page 141] to articulate post-imperial concerns with nation and migration across the Global North/South Divide” (Roy n.p.). Taking cues from postcolonial and Marxist theory, along with a sharp emphasis on classical epic intertextuality, Roy demonstrates the genre’s capacity to articulate counterhistories of the Global South, provide the poetic and discursive space for hybridized identity-formation, and affirm a radical potential for subaltern enunciation. With her keen grasp of poststructuralist theory, Roy takes cues from Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Édouard Glissant, Jacques Derrida, and others to bring a radical political engagement with language and representation to bear on what we often consider a distinctly classical genre.
Roy opens her ambitious text by addressing the immediate question readers are inclined to ask when they read the title: the apparent tension between the words “postcolonial” and “epic.” “On the one hand,” Roy argues, “the epic is perhaps too compatible with postcolonial literature: the genre’s specific preoccupation with history, territory and identity are themes that are so ubiquitous in postcolonial studies as to make epic form almost redundant” (1; emphasis in original). Yet, paradoxically, the epic tends to be regarded “as the genre of imperial authority par excellence, [and] is viewed as inherently incompatible with the postcolonial agenda of critically reappraising colonialism and its aftermath” (1; emphasis in original). For Roy, however, this seeming contradiction is readily solved: “I therefore deliberately limit my use of the term epic to those manifestations with an explicitly political scope dealing with a historical, mythical or, most often, euhemeristic past (myth cast as history)” (4). Engaging with the “political epic” subgenre enables Roy to operate within a complex world of paradoxical relations; this subgenre offers a space for articulating histories and counter-histories, nations and counter-nations—all of which provide the basis for the postcolonial epic. Throughout the book, Roy “follows the filigree-work of ‘political epic’ and its ‘migratory’ intertextuality that overlays both classical and postcolonial texts” (19). The deployment of these terms propels Roy to her text’s core argument: “[W]hile traditional epics employ a hybrid poetics of migration to express a monocultural politics of nation (a contradiction it must disavow), postcolonial epic strategically foregrounds this rift as paradigmatic of epic itself ” (19). The postcolonial epic, in Roy’s view, comments on the traditional epic’s nationalistic, monocultural structure and foregrounds these qualities in order to dramatize the ideological breaks inherent in the postcolonial, postimperial world. These breaks arise at the subjective and individual level (hybridized identity and double consciousness), the formal level (intertextuality and poetic experimentation), and the macro-political level (postimperial temporalities and spatialities). [End Page 142]
Such a large-scale thesis requires a complex set of theoretical models and concepts, which, unfortunately, overburdens Roy’s text with confounding language and terminology. While it may seem a cheap criticism (especially since judgments about clarity tend to be proffered ideologically to discredit certain academic theories and disciplines), I nevertheless found it regrettable that a compelling argument was buried in obfuscatory theoretical references. Indeed, such a stylistic choice places Roy comfortably within the poststructuralist mode, so readers arrive at the text knowing what to expect. Nevertheless, several moments in the book are clause-heavy and rife with baffling turns of phrase that I found difficult to follow: “Akin to dialogic utterances, performative temporality empowers people as subjects and signs of the present, whose self...