Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Intersecting Memory and Witnessing Violence in Anita Desai's the Zigzag Way

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Intersecting Memory and Witnessing Violence in Anita Desai's the Zigzag Way

Article excerpt

Hannah Arendt's assertion in On Violence that the twentieth century was 'a century of wars and revolutions, hence a century of violence which is currently believed to be their common denominator,'1 seems relevant when one counts those innumerable people who were displaced and murdered as a consequence of the Shoah and other violent events across the globe. The memories of these events continue to haunt displaced people as living spectres from the past. This essay explores various ways in which the violent past reappears in the present leading to a sense of loss, trauma and dislocation of the diasporic characters in Anita Desai's novel The Zigzag Way (2004). It also posits that the novel captures memory's (dis)location outside the human body and in the landscape, and the potential narration and the failure to narrate the memory by analysing tropes of ruin, dreams and ghosts, and hybrid narrative techniques. The essay demonstrates that different strands in memory studies intersect in the novel to trace vastly disparate experiences of trauma across racial, cultural and temporal divides (Huichol Indians, the Cornish miners, dissenting Nazis). Pierre Nora's 'lieux de mémoire' (which are 'At once natural and artificial, simple and ambiguous, concrete and abstract, they are lieux - places, sites, causes - in three senses - material, symbolic and functional'2) link memory to a fixed and a specific local space and culture. Michael Rothberg asserts that this concept is limiting and has a 'site-specific' perspective which leads to polarisation of history and memory and so as an alternative, he proposes a new concept of 'knots of memory', which suggests that the 'acts of memory are rhizomatic networks of temporality and cultural reference that exceed attempts at territorialization (whether at the local or national level).'3 This concept which supports the idea of memory's rhizomatic connections across boundaries and cultures is 'subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing,'4 in an increasingly globalised, networked, and mediated world. The essay advocates the advantages of studying The Zigzag Way in light of these two complementary theoretical approaches. Besides, Derrida asserts that the traumatic memory might haunt the subject in the form of what he calls a living 'specter'. This ghost of memory keeps returning uninvited to traumatise the subject and to shape his or her personal and collective memory. In this novel, the lives of three principal migrant characters, Eric, Betty and Dona Vera, are structured by the intersections of the above-mentioned concepts.

Witnessing constitutes an integral part of memory studies because, with the passage of time when the bearer of primary memory is dead or lost, the memory gets recognition through 'secondary witnessing.' Dominick LaCapra defines the secondary witness5 as an analyst, an observer or a historian who critically works on primary memory. Unlike primary witness, this witness has not directly seen or has not been 'there' but is still being shaped by the original event through the vicarious experience of it. Hence, both primary and secondary witnessing are important in the context of memory studies. While primary memory is created through direct and unmediated witnessing of the original event, as in the case of Betty, Eric and reader of the novel function as secondary witnesses when they listen to the traumatic story of the 'spectre'. In a different way, Dona Vera also becomes a secondary witness by witnessing 'lieux de mémoire' which eventually connects with her past through 'knots of memory'.

Helen Tiffin says 'postcolonial writers recast history as a "redefinable" present rather than an irrevocably interpreted past.'6 The Zigzag Way recasts the untold history with the purpose of finding its relevance for the present, to register it and to subvert the hegemony of the official testimony. In the novel, forgotten or lost narratives from the margins are retrieved and are given voice through the fictional depiction of personal or family history of the main characters. …

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