The Reds and the Blacks: The Historical Novel in the Soviet Union and Postcolonial Africa

Article excerpt

In an important, though highly controversial, article from 1986, Fredric Jameson argues the value to "First-World" intellectuals of close and careful analysis of "Third-World" literature, which for Jameson still has access to certain kinds of social experience that have been made almost entirely unavailable in the West due to the homogenizing effects of the postmodernist culture of late capitalism.(1) Jameson's article is now remembered (and often criticized) mostly for its elaboration of the notion that "national allegory" may be the necessary mode of Third-World literature. Meanwhile, his more fundamental point--that the Third World is an important source of new cultural energies in the era of late capitalism--is now almost forgotten, but only because it has been so widely accepted as to appear obvious. The intervening decade has seen a veritable explosion in postcolonial studies, leading to a widespread acceptance of the notion that close and careful study of non Western texts is not only rewarding but essential for anyone who would seek to understand world culture at this juncture in history. Among other things, by learning to understand that cultural phenomena such as the African novel may operate according to different aesthetic principles than those that have typically governed the central texts of the Western canon, we have gained a much better understanding of the historicity of aesthetic criteria in general while learning to challenge the traditional claim of universality that has long underwritten Western bourgeois aesthetics.

The new respect being paid these days to postcolonial cultural phenomena such as the African novel was not gained without a difficult struggle in which a long legacy of colonialist stereotypes had to be overcome. Meanwhile, other cultural phenomena that challenge the hegemony of Western bourgeois aesthetics have still not overcome similar stereotypes. For example, it remains conventional in the West to dismiss most of the massive cultural production of the Soviet Union (especially that which falls under the rubric of socialist realism) as so much ideological tripe, as an unfortunate detour from the literary into the political that resulted in more than half a century of cultural impoverishment in which the once-mighty Russian cultural apparatus produced essentially nothing of any real value. Regine Robin's well-known characterization of socialist realism as an "impossible aesthetic" is only one of the more diplomatic dismissals of Soviet literature, the study of which was, for an entire generation, dominated by the early Cold-War diatribes of such strident antiSoviets as Marc Slonim and Gleb Struve.(2) Even Katerina Clark's The Soviet Novel, perhaps the most objective Western study of socialist realism to be produced during the Cold War, tends to concentrate on the identification of stereotypes and master plots in socialist-realist novels, never really questioning the notion that socialist realism is governed by such devices or asking whether these devices are really any more restrictive than the Western notion of literary conventions.(3)

Of course, numerous studies from within the Soviet Union have pointed out the richness of the achievements of Soviet culture, while also attempting to explain the ways in which socialist realism operates according to an aesthetic of its own that is in many ways radically different from that of the Western bourgeois novel.(4) But these studies have generally been dismissed in the West as examples of the same degraded descent into "ideology" that made socialist realism itself such a presumably reprehensible phenomenon. Meanwhile (perhaps predictably), by the time of perestroika, Western aesthetics, like many artifacts of Western bourgeois ideology, had gained considerable purchase in the Soviet Union, and prominent Soviet critics such as Evgeny Dobrenko began to characterize socialist realism in many of the same terms that had long been used in the West, though at least with the advantage of apparently having actually read the works they were deriding, something that could not always be said for their Western counterparts. …