"The Story That Gave This Land Its Life" -the Translocation of Rilke's Duino Elegies in Amitav Ghosh's the Hungry Tide

By Meyer, Sandra | Cross / Cultures, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

"The Story That Gave This Land Its Life" -the Translocation of Rilke's Duino Elegies in Amitav Ghosh's the Hungry Tide


Meyer, Sandra, Cross / Cultures


Amitav Ghosh's novel The Hungry Tide is set in the Sundarbans, a part of the world's largest delta formed by the rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna. The novel, which was published in 2004, is a highly intertextual and meta-narrative one, profoundly concerned with the necessity as well as the problem of translation in a hybrid society. This is first and foremost illustrated by the protagonist Kanai, who is a translator and interpreter by profession and works as a mediator between different characters as well as between narrator and reader. In addition to this, there are two key intertexts which reappear throughout the novel and which are both presented in translated versions to the characters as well as to the readers. The first text is the local story "The Glory of Bon Bibi," a Hindu-Muslim story2 about an island goddess who rescues the boy Dukhey when he is threatened by the tiger-demon Dokkhin Rai (246). This story has been primarily passed on orally from one generation to the next. In contrast to this, the second central intertext is a piece of canonical poetry: namely, Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies. This famous piece of poetry, originally written in German, is dislocated and integrated - translocated - into a postcolonial novel dealing with India's past and present and possibly also her future.

This essay will try to show that the translocation of Rilke' s Duino Elegies intensifies the tone3 and adds to the multiple levels of meaning in Ghosh's novel. Many passages of The Hungry Tide can, in fact, be read as illustrations of the key notions in Rilke's poem4 and vice versa. The intertextual references thus have various connected and mutually reinforcing functions. This is achieved, for instance, by connecting certain quotations with specific characters to illustrate further the difficult situations they find themselves in. In addition, as other critics have pointed out before, The Hungry Tide is structured by means of binary oppositions such as land and water or ebb and flood.5 At first sight, the Duino Elegies appear to fit seamlessly into this meta-narrative structure of the novel, as they seem to be diametrically opposed to the other major intertext, the local story of Bon Bibi. However, this binary opposition, though it appears to be so obvious at first, is somewhat resolved in the ending of the novel. This dissolution of the diametrical structure suggests a reading of The Hungry Tide as a novel indicating the need for syncretism in postcolonial societies.

'Intertextuality' is, of course, a term frequently used but hardly ever clearly defined. As Heinrich Plett notes, "everybody who uses it understands it somewhat differently."6 Thus, it seems necessary to briefly explain the underlying assumption of this essay in relation to existing theories and types of intertextuality. When referring to the fact that The Hungry Tide uses Rilke's Duino Elegies as an intertext, intertextuality is here to be understood in the sense of Genette's "cinq types de relations transtextuelles."7 In the first category of his system he defines intertextuality as a form of transtextuality which is characterized by the "explicit summoning up of a text that is both presented and distanced by quotation marks," as opposed to paratextuality, metatextuality, hypertextuality, and architextuality. This is precisely how the various quotations of the Duino Elegies are presented to the reader: namely, as straightforward statements with quotation marks.9 Furthermore, an underlying assumption of this essay is that there is a "triangular interaction of readerwriter-text"10 which somewhat rejects the "New Criticism's notion of the autonomy of the text."11 Monica Loeb talks about the fact that a writer who includes intertextual references in his writings is first of all a reader who then makes use of what he or she read earlier and integrates it into his or her own writing. I would even prefer to speak of a process consisting of four points of interaction rather than three, as there is not only the writer who used to be a reader, but also a reader who notices the intertextual references and sees them as signs adding to his understanding of the text. …

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