Nicholas Harrison. Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction

By Acheraiou, Amar | Conradiana, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Nicholas Harrison. Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction


Acheraiou, Amar, Conradiana


Nicholas Harrison. Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2003.0-74562-1821. 201 p.

Nicholas Harrison devotes a great deal of Postcolonial Criticism to the issue of racism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Albert Camus' The Outsider. He addresses racial considerations in both novels in light of Gerard Genette's notions of representation, realism or plausibility, and identification. Relatedly, he draws on Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Edward Said to extend his discussion to literary and political representations within the postcolonial context, focusing on the Moroccan writer, Driss Chraibi, and the Algerian woman author, Assia Djebar. He tackles, among other things, these "minor" writers' intricate relation to the questions of responsibility for and solidarity with the minorities to which they belong, their ethnic representativeness, and their texts' representativity.

Harrison shapes a comprehensive, didactic argument; keen to bring down to its clearest the theoretical debate, he engages to enlighten the reader. In this, his book may prove useful for undergraduate students looking for an initiation into critical theory. Viewed in relation to the body of criticism produced in the postcolonial field, however, it merely keeps to, rather than unsettles, mainstream thought. Surely, Harrison does not challenge postcolonial orthodoxies; for all his effort to "reconstruct" and then "deconstruct" the problem of racism, the outcome is more recapitulative than innovative. We may concede that it is not easy to be groundbreaking when discussing the overdebated issue of racism in Heart of Darkness and in The Outsider. As a reminder, we can mention in passing that much has been written about racism in Heart of Darkness in response to Chinua Achebe's argument about Conrad's alleged racism. Most critics have pointed out the difficulty to pin down the text's racism, the common argument being that Marlow's indeterminate narrative allows equal space for contradictory discourses on race, making it hard to decide which the author is endorsing. In a similar vein, most scholars dealing with racial concerns in The Outsider underline the difficulty to determine clearly Camus' position regarding the problem of racism hotly raised in the novel. Following in the steps of these critics, Harrison shows, for example, how Marlow is "hard to fathom and categorize, and at times hard to understand" and his "use of points of reference [...] could be said to convey his ethnocentricity and incomprehension, but could also be seen as a 'narrative strategy designed to undermine the ethnocentricity of his audience'" (28). He similarly insists on The Outsider's slipperiness, declaring "it is impossible to state with certainty that any racist assumptions and attitudes are Camus's rather than just Meursault's, and the critic might justify their presence in the text in terms of realism and the vraisemblance, and for a distanced and perhaps distancing representation of those attitudes as such" (Harrison 64).

Harrison examines in great detail Heart of Darkness and The Outsider's ambiguities but regretfully fails to come up with original, challenging insights that would have, for instance, helped the reader understand why authors like Conrad and Camus--both critical of Empire--become elusive when tackling racial representations. In fact, we would have liked Harrison to probe the cultural, ideological, and social determinisms presiding at the definition of culture and race. Such endeavor might have provided us with a wider picture of the colonial mental cartographies that conditioned Conrad and Camus' mapping of the racial representations. If these lapses obviously weaken the book's overall argument, they should by no means detract us from appreciating Harrison's efforts to problematize the issue of racism, and, most importantly, his attempt to recontextualize the works he discusses.

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