Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Detection, Colonialism, Postcolonialism: The Sense of an Ending in Julian Barnes's Arthur and George 1

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Detection, Colonialism, Postcolonialism: The Sense of an Ending in Julian Barnes's Arthur and George 1

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In 2011, Julian Barnes was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of An Ending, a title also used decades earlier by literary critic Frank Kermode in his exploration of how, "[i]n 'making sense' of the world we still feel a need, harder than ever to satisfy because of an accumulated scepticism, to experience that concordance of beginning, middle, and end which is the essence of our explanatory fictions" (35-36). Kermode references the work of author Iris Murdoch, who "finds much difficulty in resisting what she calls 'the consolations of forms' " (134).2 Barnes explores this human need for explanatory fictions and the temptation to rewrite the beginning of one's life narrative in light of a desired end or outcome not only in The Sense of an Ending, but also in the novel that immediately preceded it, Arthur and George. In this historical novel about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's involvement with an obscure legal case concerning George Edalji's purported mutilation of farm animals, Barnes engages with numerous kinds of endings, ranging from the way that Doyle begins writing his Sherlock Holmes stories by first conceiving the ending, to the characters' musings about what happens to the human soul when one's life comes to an end, to the fin de siècle passing of a nineteenth-century sensi- bility. Like Doyle's fictional character Holmes, and like the detective-fiction genre in general, Barnes's characters Doyle and Edalji are both enddriven. However, Arthur and George thwarts the reader's desire for closure, even while everywhere discoursing on its importance. The novel is organized into four sections, the titles of which at once highlight the primacy of beginnings and endings and dismantle the boundaries between them: (1) "Beginnings"; (2) "Beginning with an Ending"; (3) "Ending with a Beginning"; and (4) "Endings." Though the novel ostensibly begins with a beginning and ends with an ending, the first page in fact describes an ending-the death of Arthur's maternal grandmother-while the last page describes a beginning: the adoption by Edalji of a new worldview, one that calls into question his former belief in definitive truths and narrative closure.

Author Michael Ondaatje, in an interview with Peter Coughlan about his postcolonial detective novel Anil's Ghost, comments on how the West has used its conviction that "there are always answers, always solutions" in order to "bomb [its] way to having [its] truth accepted in another country" (qtd. in Knepper 54). Like Anil's Ghost, Arthur and George comprises what Wendy Knepper calls a "profound postcolonial postmortem of Western ways of constructing the truth" (54). Though not a post-colonial novel per se, Arthur and George explores Western epistemologies against the background of British imperialism. Barnes conducts his own literary postmortem in part through his treatment of closure, his exploration of the human need for a sense of an ending. While numerous critics have commented on Barnes's playful treatment of the conventions of detective f iction or his exploration of English identity,3 none has considered Arthur and George through the lens of theories of detection that reexamine, from the perspective of postcolonial criticism, the relationship between British imperialism and nineteenth-century detective fictions, and in particular how Barnes addresses the matter of British identity by subverting generic conventions. Taking into account the complicated network of diverse narratives that the novel thematizes in light of postcolonial reconsiderations of the detective-f iction genre reveals the degree to which the novel probes of the idea of closure that so dominates Western thought in order to challenge monocultural constructions of Englishness.

There is not room here to thoroughly rehearse different theories of detective fiction without oversimplifying the field, except to establish the sometimes overlapping trends in critics' thinking about this genre. …

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