Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Zen Comedy in Postcolonial Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day.'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Zen Comedy in Postcolonial Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day.'

Article excerpt

Although Commonwealth literature (from the Commonwealth of Nations, hence written in English) and postcolonial literature (translated into English) are taught in many English departments, such courses and collections remain problematic for at least two reasons. First, taxonomically the designations never escape their flawed origins. Thus Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, editors of a recent anthology (1995), virtually apologize for their title, Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World, saying that they "faced the dilemma of using a negative term that derives from a Western perception" (xvii). Similarly, the rationale for grouping works and the related supposition for survey courses is a sense of an underlying cultural history (e.g., American literature), which also informs other courses or genres that derive from that history. Lacking any comparable unity, postcolonial literature is presented as a hodgepodge assembly and is often associated with minority studies. By definition, minority views are supplemental; they frequently arise in reaction to majority views, and since they do not voice majority experience, they tend to be regarded as secondary and somewhat exotic.

Yet the views presented by Commonwealth writers are not minority views, though one would hardly know this from the scolding of critics such as Graham Parry who takes the most prominent Indian novelist, R. K. Narayan, to task for "the odd psychology of some of his characters whose emotional responses are often bizarre to a Western reader" (79). Anglo-American readers' cannot understand the actions of Narayan's characters until they know something of the Hindu social psychology that defines normal behavior in Indian society. This, then, is the second problem: to understand something of a profoundly alien society requires a deeper shift in outlook than can be accomplished by an examination of an isolated text or even a collection of works.

Commonwealth writers are native to the regions and cultures they write about: the Caribbean, India, China and parts of Africa. In some measure an Anglo-American audience must appreciate the exotic element of such writing: how different the fictional characters and their situations are from what is ordinary and important in our experience. When this is ignored, critics often bluster, scorning the unfamiliar, or preach, asking for tolerance of the unfamiliar. Evidencing the evangelical approach, Clerk and Siegel hope that their anthology "helps cultivate an awareness that honors different cultural perspectives," as though assuming that it was the professed intent of each author to pitch his or her culture to an audience of North American undergraduates (xviii). We do not expect great works from our own tradition to be so transparent and pandering. William Walsh illustrates the bluster approach, concluding that Narayan's Mr Sampath "doesn't quite succeed" because of "an insufficiency of `composition.'" Exasperated because he cannot explain the accomplished work, Walsh proclaims, "The novel's shape is oddly humpbacked, and repeated readings fail to convince me that I have missed some deeper and more structurally implicit unifying influence" (62-63). What Walsh could not feel was the Hindu atmosphere, which provides motives for the characters in the novel and themes for readers.

Criticism has recently become sensitive to the presumptive tone of male narrative voices, to racially white voices and to colonial voices. Critical explanations proceeding from such sensitivities, however, tend to remain dialectically two dimensional, assuming that truth can be discovered by stretching the text between two poles: male/female, white/black, majority/ minority, America/the world. Moving from one pole to the other is regarded as significant and such movement in a protagonist's understanding and his/her subsequent moral growth provides the model for many Western novels. Nonetheless, the change is measured by distance from the initial pole, which continues to broadcast paradigm assumptions that postcolonial writers do not hear, because they are tuned into the cultural programs which shaped their childhoods. …

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