Academic journal article ARIEL

Multilingual Novels as Transnational Literature: Yann Martel's Self

Academic journal article ARIEL

Multilingual Novels as Transnational Literature: Yann Martel's Self

Article excerpt

Abstract: Yann Martel's experimental novel Self(1996) recounts the story of a young man's gender transformation as he negotiates his national and linguistic identity through cosmopolitan and multilingual affiliations. To convey the tropes of mobility and flexibility, the novel juxtaposes English and several other languages in parallel columns, inviting comparisons across discrete linguistic and literary traditions. Conceptualized from the start as a multilingual novel, Self challenges monolingual ways of classifying national literature and raises questions about plurilingual texts' placement in literary canons, their implied readers, and their translation into other languages. This article draws on recent debates about transnationalism to read Self as a novel whose formal strategies require a mode of reading predicated on comparison and translation. Readers are encouraged to simultaneously conceive of distinct languages relationally and uncover the hegemonic relationship between global and local languages in Canada and internationally. Through its formal aesthetics, which underscores both the opportunities and limits of multilingualism, Martel's polyglot novel contributes valuable insights to current discussions of transnational literature.

Keywords: multilingualism, transnationalism, Canadian literature, gendered identity, intertextuality, Yann Martel, Self

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In her essay "The Location of Literature: The Transnational Book and the Migrant Writer," Rebecca Walkowitz discusses the shifting disciplinary paradigms of English studies and argues that in an age of globalization what we call English literature has multiple sites of production, reception, and circulation and should therefore no longer be conceived within national and monolingual literary systems. The location of literature, she suggests, has been amply called into question by migrant, diasporic, and cosmopolitan writers, who are increasingly being read "across multiple geographies" (528). As Walkowitz argues, "Books are no longer imagined to exist in a single literary system but may exist, now and in the future, in several literary systems, through various and uneven practices of world circulation" (528). These practices may include, for instance, a text's circulation in translation, its simultaneous publication in several languages, or its reception and institutionalization far from its original site of production. In their focus on multilingual translation and global circulation, such practices assert both the inadequacy of the nation as a literary-critical paradigm and the importance of transnational contexts for the production and dissemination of contemporary literature. Most models of transnational and world literature, however, contend that a literary text becomes transnational when it circulates outside of its national context (Damrosch; Thomsen). They assume that there is a particular, possibly national, site of production, as authors often write from specific locations and in particular languages that prove pivotal for the reception and classification of their texts. If literature becomes transnational when it does not fit neatly into a single national tradition, however, through which literary strategies does a text transnationalize? How should we classify fictional texts that are written in several national languages and mix dominant and dominated languages, standard and vernacular forms, Latin and Cyrillic alphabets? Which linguistic traditions do they belong to, who are their implied readers, and how should one translate them into other languages? My essay endeavors to answer these questions in relation to Yann Martel's debut novel Self(1996), a multilingual novel that reflects critically on the act of writing and reading transnationally. Through my analysis of the novel, I wish to shift the vector of the debate toward the ways in which multilingual texts transnationalize national canons--in other words, to draw attention to texts that are conceptualized as transnational from the very start and published in officially bilingual countries, such as Canada, where the notion of a "national" literature is complex. …

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