Academic journal article ARIEL

Phantasms of War and Empire in Pat Barker's the Ghost Road

Academic journal article ARIEL

Phantasms of War and Empire in Pat Barker's the Ghost Road

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay interrogates the nature, limits, and effects of the juxtaposition of Great Britain and Melanesia that takes place in Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (1995), the final installment of the much-lauded Regeneration trilogy. Published two years before the handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China, which marked the unofficial end of the British Empire, and four years after the end of the neocolonial charade of the first Gulf War, The Ghost Road brings its readers back to the beginning of the twentieth century, cannily meshing a carefully researched portrayal of the First World War with its protagonist's dreams and memories of a Melanesian society suffocating under the oppressive weight of colonial law. Drawing on Paul Gilroy's concept of postcolonial melancholia, we read the success of the Booker Prize-winning novel as reflecting a deep-seated anxiety about the downfall of empire(s) that continues to characterize political life in the West. The novel's strength lies in the way it highlights the insidious workings of class prejudices on the front lines, the complex matrix of sexuality, duty, and friendship that defined relationships between men in the trenches, and the reshuffling of traditional gender roles that the war brought about both at home and abroad. In spite of its merits, however, the transformative and challenging confrontation with the human cost of Britain's imperial transgressions that The Ghost Road offers is consistently deferred and masked behind its more visible portrayal of the melancholic fantasy of a racially homogenous, tragic, and exclusively Western First World War.

Keywords: Pat Barker; The Ghost Road, First World War; British Empire; postcolonial melancholia

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Learning to live with difference has become an ethical and political imperative at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as the world's population soars, as new technologies continue to minimize the distances that separate cultures and communities, as traumatic social upheavals, revolutions, and acts of brutality continue to define relations within and across nations, and as the ambivalent effects of decolonization continue to be felt worldwide both by formerly colonized peoples and by their former colonizers. A thorough consideration of the encounters between disparate and powerful memories of victimhood, suffering, and war--so crucial to the formation of group and individual identities throughout the twentieth century and beyond--forms a central part of this undertaking, as demonstrated by the work of Paul Gilroy, Michael Rothberg, and others. The approaching centenary of the First World War will no doubt bring with it a reshuffling and reconsideration of the way that this particular war is memorialized in a variety of cultural contexts, offering a chance to plot the multifaceted interactions between dissenting voices and entrenched accounts of an important twentieth-century cultural trauma. With the death of the very last combat veteran of the war, Claude Choules, in May 2011, this confluence of memories will necessarily take place through the circulation of existing primary or secondary texts, lending an extra urgency to the task of critically re-examining canonical representations of the war, mapping their continuing contributions to twenty-first-century identity construction, and paying heed to and attempting to expand the often limited, Eurocentric bounds in which they operate.

Bearing the above in mind, this essay interrogates the nature, limits, and effects of the juxtaposition of Great Britain and Melanesia that takes place in Pat Barkers The Ghost Road (1995), the final installment of the much-lauded Regeneration trilogy. Published two years before the handover of Hong Kong to the Peoples Republic of China, which marked the unofficial end of the British Empire, and four years after the end of the neocolonial charade of the first Gulf War, The Ghost Road brings its readers back to the beginning of the twentieth century, cannily meshing a carefully researched portrayal of the First World War with its protagonist's dreams and memories of a Melanesian society suffocating under the oppressive weight of colonial law. …

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