Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Mutilated Selves: Pauline Melville, Mario De Andrade, and the Troubling Hybrid

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Mutilated Selves: Pauline Melville, Mario De Andrade, and the Troubling Hybrid

Article excerpt

Pauline Melville's The Ventriloquist's Tale is a postcolonial novel that talks back to a variety of earlier works, notably Mario de Andrade's Macunaima. This essay argues that a crucial difference between the two texts is their rather dissimilar attitudes toward the cultural and racial multiplicity embodied by the Amazonian trickster Macunaima.

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Pauline Melville's The Ventriloquist's Tale is a self-consciously postcolonial text. As one reads the 1997 novel, one cannot help but notice how the author is writing back to a variety of metropolitan pundits, from Darwin and Freud to Levi-Strauss and, most explicitly, Evelyn Waugh. However, there is one intertextual relationship that is more complicated, and usually ignored by critics--that with Mario de Andrade's Macunaima. The link between the two works is the Amazonian trickster who is the eponymous protagonist of Andrade's 1928 "rhapsody" and the narrator of (at least part of) Melville's novel. Yet, what an examination of the two texts also underscores is Melville's apparent ambivalence toward her mischievous narrator. Andrade's Macunaima is often seen as the symbol of the cultural and racial hybridity that ostensibly characterizes life in Brazil and South America in general. Or, less positively, he is the tragic reminder of the region's failure to accept its "harlequinate and multiple" identity (Haberly 144). Melville's novel, in contrast, suggests that the only way the Amerindian inhabitants of the Guyanese savannah will be able to survive as a distinct group is by isolating themselves from the outside world, including their black and East-Indian co-citizens from the coast. Indeed, as I will attempt to demonstrate in my comparative analysis of the two novels, the reason Melville's portrayal of Macunaima differs so markedly from Andrade's is that, ultimately, she does not seem to believe in the cultural and racial multiplicity embodied by her trickster.

The concept of race has become extremely volatile in the last few decades. Some scholars even deny that there is such a phenomenon as race, given that the "human genetic variability between the populations of Africa or Europe or Asia is not much greater than that within those populations" (Appiah, Father's 35). Contemporary thinkers like Kwame Anthony Appiah and Rainier Spencer see race as "our historical curse, our great confusion" (Spencer 126). While they accept that there are discernible differences among human groups that are genetically inherited, they are adamant that those traits do not reveal anything fundamental about an individual. As Appiah writes, "the truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask race to do for us" (Father's 45). Since race has a social dimension, of course it may not be critical whether it is perceived as a biological entity or a cultural one. Nevertheless, one of the negative implications of the wide embrace of the "basic unreality" of race (Appiah, "Race" 277) is that it makes it extremely difficult to ponder the possibility of a mixed-race subjectivity, and thus to trace the unique challenges faced by people of mixed ancestry.

Jacques Audinet, for instance, has noted the paradox that, even though humans know they are "the fruit of multiple intermixings," they have a tendency "to deny their mixed origins" (54). Audinet also makes the acute observation that there are striking parallels between contemporary ideas on race and those promulgated by eighteenth-century intellectuals like Arthur de Gobineau and Cornelius de Pauw. As he quotes Michel Lalonde, "the two systems drive at the same conclusion, the non-existence of a durable filiation rooted in Mestizaje, through a genetic annulment kept alive two centuries later by linguistic silence" (80). Still, even among those scholars who insist that race has no reality beyond discourse, few deny that people from "separate geographic zones" have come in contact with each other and produced hybrid offspring (Audinet 9), who do not always identify with--or are not fully accepted by--either parent group. …

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