The following essay appeared in The Journal of Modern Literature, published by Indiana University Press, and the special issue on Short Story includes essays by Wilson Harris, Amiri Baraka, Isabel Allende, Bharati Mukherjee and others.
Third World Short Story as National Allegory?
Fredric Jameson's 1986 essay "Third-World Literature in an Era of Multinational Capitalism," declares that unlike the literatures of the First World, Third World Literatures are necessarily national allegories. "Third World texts," Jameson argues, "even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic, necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory; the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society. Jameson also speculates that the disproportionate ratio of the political to the personal makes such texts alien to western readers. Click here to return to the Author's homepage
As a Marxist critic, Jameson is actually investing a positive value in the literatures of the Third World and chastizing the First World readers and writers on account of their literary narcissism, yet his theoretical project seems to be an inadequate representation of the literary life of the so-called Third World. First of all, Jameson's attempt reminds one of Thomas Babington Macauley, the English colonial administrator who theorized on the Orient in his 1854 essay "Minute on Education". Macauley wrote thus: "I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia (597).
Though Jameson is saying quite the opposite here, the nature of the two theorizations are similar on account of their hasty generalization. In Jameson's sketching of what he calls a "theory of the cognitive aesthetics of third-world literature" (88), his main objective is to develop a unified theory for Western readers trying to understand and teach the literature of the third-world in the multicultural academy.
At the outset we must remember that Third World Literature is written in hundreds of regional languages all over the world and that only a very limited number get translated. So the First World critics have to make their aesthetic pronouncements based on works mediated by political establishments linked to the First World, often handpicked for their allegorical, political content, for these works are marketed not as fictions, but as fictions of India, Africa, Brazil, etc. A novel I am reading at the moment is even subtitled "A Novel of Pakistan" and published by the UNESCO. Jameson's theory overestimates the prevalence of such fictions in the Third World and he underestimates the literary range of writers in the non-Western world. Since the mid-century, literay and popular fiction have been ubiquitious in much of the Third World. For instance, in many Indian language newspapers and magazines, several novels are still serialized in the same manner Charles Dickens published his novels.
In the case of the Malayalam language in southern India, all weeklies and even some newspapers serialize novels, several at a time. Both popular and literary journals print short stories. With circulations ranging from ten-thousand to nearly a million in some cases, they produce a large quantity of serious and escapist fiction. Are they necessarily national allegories in form and content? Or should we apply the theory selectively to those precious few novels and stories that get traslated into English?
The truth is that many canonical works in these languages are often overlooked by those who choose representative fictions for translation into the First World languages because "national allegories" are able to travel beyond regional languages, not as literature, but as ethnographies, as anthropology and political document. Aijaz Ahmad's critique of Jameson in his book In Theory exposes the weaknesses and disparity of the characterization of the third-world on the basis of "the experience of colonialism and imperialism" whereas the first-world and second-world are characterized on the basis of their capitalist and socialist modes of production.
About Jameson's excuse that he was using the term "third-world" in a descriptive sense, Ahmad countered that when it comes to knowledge of the world, there is no such thing as a category of the "essentially descriptive"; that description is never ideologically or cognitively neutral, but it is used in the colonial discourse in order to classify and ideologically master the colonial subject (Ahmad 101). If we grant that novels by their very nature have to provide a larger background which could be theorized as politically allegorical, would the same theorization apply to the short story, too?
On account of the lyrical and the microcosmic aspects of the short story, could they claim independence from nationalist reading? If the short story is exempted, the theory would fail to account for the most energetic literary activity in the Third World which is still alive in the wake of the multinational television culture. Jameson's theorization is based on the assumption that the capitalist cultural production is determined by a radical split between the private and public realms that Freud and Marx have come to symbolize and on the conviction that the private realm of lived experience is superior cultural material to the political dynamics to the third-world.
It is at this point that Jameson makes the sweeping generalization that could cripple any specimen of third-world literature that strives to deal with the psychological and spiritual reality of the individual: "Even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic-- necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory (69). An observation I have to make here is that at least in the category of Indian Literature, the many regional literatures that constitute this entity are so removed from the national consciouness that they seldom acknowledge nationalism as an issue.
The many regional struggles that have come into the open within the past decade have not manifested in literature, yet, and very few of India's regionalisms have definite nationalist origins. So what accounts for the fecundity of fiction in regional literatures? Marx? Freud? Or whether it is some other cultural factor lingering in the postcolonial age remains unclear. Toward the end of his essay, Jameson shows how the first-world literature is condemned to the "luxury of a placeless freedom in which any consciousness of his own concrete situation flees like a dream" (85) whereas, third- world literature manages to concretize its historical destiny because for the third-world writers the narration of "the individual experience cannot but ultimately involve the whole laborious telling of the experience of the collectivity itself" (86).
The existence of this collectivity in Indian literature is different from the Jamesonian version. I presume that it is on account of the fact that regional language literatures predate the idea of the Indian nation itself, and therefore national allegories. At least the Third World literature produced in India remains independent of Jameson's generalization.
In order to support his theory about the inevitable national allegory in the works of third-world writers, Jameson provides a brilliant and lengthy explication of the Chinese novelist, Lu Xun, and the Senegalese writer and film- maker, Ousmane Sembene. Observing that Lu Xun's "Diary of a Madman" (1918) is the story of a paranoid's nervous breakdown, Jameson insists that the resonance of the clinical tale is national in character and allegorical of the cannibalistic paranoia of the Chinese nation bracing itself for revolution. By the same token, the Senegalese novelist Sembene's Xala, which deals with a protagonist who marries a third wife in spite of his impotency, is also made to fit into Jameson's grid of national allegory. Jameson explains the impotency of this individual as allegorical of the inability of different African nationalisms to regenerate.
Using the same symptomatic reading that provided Jameson with the criteria for national allegory, we could also disprove the claim by forcing other arbitrary meanings, including national allegories, continental allegories, regional allegories, ethereal allegories or what not.
If we take, a short story by Osmane Sembene himself, entitled "The False Prophet", we see a lazy bum named Mahmoud Fall who pretends to be an Imam; he goes to Senegal where he exploits the gullible Muslims. Finally, he gets away with a bag full of money, and it is time for him to confront the God whose devotees he had cheated so skillfully. On his way home, while sleeping in the desert, the charlatan has a dream that someone has shaved off his trademark, the holy beard and his hair. When he wakes up, he senses the presence of someone else; he quickly buries the money and begins to pray. During the ritual sand-ablution, he realizes that he was indeed shaved in his sleep. Then he hears voices to the effect that the dream-barber was actually God himself, yet Mahmoud wasn't willing to repent his sins, and it was clear that he wanted to retain his booty.
As the story comes to a close, we see Mahmoud the False Prophet going mad trying to dig up the money he had buried in the sand. My question here is whether it is necessary to understand the story as an allegory about the corruption of religious nationalism of Islamic countries and about the final day when the charlatans ruling the country would be exposed by a democratic social order? Can't we read it primarily as a story about a simple individual's encounter with his true self which he had been deceiving throughout his life? The fact that dreams wake him to an awareness of his self deceptive life vouches for the psychological energy of this story. It could also be read as a spiritual allegory in which the false prophet is led into the desert to be turned into a true prophet like St.Paul, but individuals in the modern world are so much obsessed with their possessions that they are incapable of recognizing the divine offer; the only enlightenment Mahmoud receives is that "there is no need to believe in Allah to be a thief" (Sembene 7).
And there is no historical or textual reality in the story that calls for a certain kind of understanding, and even if we bring in all kind of anthropological background to it, the story is not necessarily a national allegory. (The word "necessarily" is the most dominant term in Jameson's discourse.) If such a reading is necessary, why shouldn't we be obliged to read Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" as a short story about the blindness of the twentieth century America?
Let me part with a secret here. I had read Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" while I was still living in the rural India where I spent twenty-six years of my life, and I understood the story as an allegory of America. There are moments in the story when the sense of collectivity seems to transcend the personal and domestic. In my first reading, the allegorical meaning appeared to be the most significant way to deal with the nuances of the story that I couldn't possibly comprehend to the full extent. Only after arriving in the United States, after having lived in the Carver territory of the Pacific Northwest attempting to scratch beneath the surface of the language, after being part of America to some extent, only then did I come to perceive the eyes and noses and mouths on the faces of the individual characters in the story. Until then those faces signified the blank geography and history and culture of a nation that I had known only through stories like The Fall of the House of Usher, a fine allegory about the collapse of a nation, a house, a mind, a story.
The first layer of the textuality of "Cathedral" suggested the narration of a nation, Jameson's elaborate and elegant reading of Lu Xun and Sembene seem to touch only this first layer that is accessible to one looking from outside: the Chineseness, the Africanness. I saw The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, Slaughter-house Five, etc., as primarily national allegories. Responding to this issue, Aijaz Ahmad said thus: "While Jameson overstates the presence of. . . the `national allegory,' in the narratives of the third-world, he also in the same sweep, understates the presence of analogous impulses in US cultural ensembles. . . It is not only the Asian or the African but also the American writer whose private imaginations must necessarily connect with experiences of the collectivity. One has only to look at black and feminist writing to find countless allegories even within these postmodernist United States" (15).
So I feel compelled to theorize that national allegory is a reader-response problem, not necessarily limited to the Western reader, but to all the lost-in- translation readers, whether translating from languages of the other or the cultures and sub-cultures of the other. It is the close reading that scratches off the allegorical and political and reveals the literary. If we look at the works of three contemporary writers in Malaylam language, Basheer, O.V. Vijayan, and Zachariah, we can see a filament of the political allegory on the surface.
The self-taught Basheer who spent his youth wandering all over India and the Middle East when he was not incarcerated by the British is the best example of the three. Basheer started writing at the height of the Gandhian era and became quite popular after Independence in 1947. Though one would suspect great nationalist spirit in his works, what he offered were simple pictures of the life in the poor, illiterate Muslim community of Kerala trying to adjust to the modernity, religious pluralism, and socialism that suddenly became the organizing structure of the new society. His thirty odd fictions include Love Letter (1943), Voices (1947), Gambler's Daughter (1951), Pathuma's Goat, (1959), The Magic Cat (1964). No consensus has been reached whether he is actually a short story writer or a miniature novelist.
Most of his books are under fifty pages long, with the economy of the short story, yet with the scope of an epic narrative because all his ouvre could be read as one grand narrative. This fact should make him an eminent national allegorist. But his work will not lend itself to Jameson's treatment. The idea of the nation is nothing more than the constructive details of the lives of ordinary people caught in the timeless acts of living and dying and laughing endlessly about the enigma of existence.
In his 1953 work Aanavariyum Ponkurisum, Basheer introduces his comic heroes in the mock vocabulary of the Communist Party which was becoming a major presence in Kerala villages at the time: "This world is for everybody: private property is invalid; anyone can take anything from anyone: this is the philosophy of the beautiful world order that is espoused by both Raman Nair and Thoma. And they are comrades. Once upon a time a woman named Ammukutty had betrayed Raman Nair in the area of love and for that reason he doesn't have any great affection for womankind whereas Thoma still possesses a great mind that respects and loves womankind" (Basheer 8). Click, for my tanslation of Basheer's Aanavarium Ponkurisum.
Evidently, the energy of Basheer's fiction is generated by the nuances and the corruptions of the language as well as the humor and pathos of rural life. In a more profound level, there is a definite confrontation with modernity, but it is difficult to determine whether the spirit is postmodern or whether it is something purely homebred. It is possible to see how Jameson might mistake some of these narratives for allegories that signify the pre- capitalist, semi-feudal economy of rural India which is arrested by primitive modes of production and kept in the timeless hegemony of tribal religion.
The truth is that for the Indian regional-language writers, the idea of the nation is not a life-and death problem which defines their reality. Nation is something so far removed from the peripheral positions that provide strength to writers like Basheer. Indian federalism has provided them a sense of the post-nationhood; Jameson might see this as a distinquishing mark as well as a sign of decadence of First World literature. In any case, even at the height of the Independence struggle in India, issues of class and caste dominated Indian fiction than a desire for nationhood.
The first serious national allegorizer to come out of India was Salman Rushdie, and he doesn't represent the literary content of all Third World and it might be that Jameson drew his theoretical inspiration from such overtly political writers as Garcia- Marquez and Rushdie who are actually part of the papier-mache Third World in some ways. Their works are national allegories indeed. Besides, Basheer, O.V. Vijayan and Paul Zachariah are two major short story writers who ought to have written national allegories because of their long stays in New Delhi, their personal and professional involvement with questions of the larger India. Vijayan is one of the nation's greatest political cartoonists.
Even when he writes about the nation, as he did in his The Saga of Dharmapuri, it is not as an allegory, but as a scatalogical satire. Zachariah who is an exclusive practioner of the art of the short story, brings in the unique Syrian Christian texture to the language and style of his stories about hapless individuals like Mr. Chacko who has all the trappings of a Westernized pseudo- intellectual.
A sense of entrapment in the labyrinth of culture convinces Mr.Chacko to set fire to all his books and to commit suicide, but he fails because he couldn't quite open the lid of the poison bottle. He claims no unique insight. Like most of the characters in the Zachariah stories, Chacko's voice is that of self-mockery, not the clarity or chaos of a nation. All these three writers have been translated into English rather unsuccessfully.
Yes, too much is lost in translation. The only gain is something that is not explicitly there to begin with: national allegory. If that nonexistent element serves as the axiomatic basis for a theory about all third-world literatures, you can imagine the folly in that enterprise. Jameson's theory not only attributes a false sense of power to the literatures of the third-world, but also reduces all the writings of the non- Western world to a tidy one-dimensional aesthetics.
The theory of national allegory only serves to reveal the failure of theoretical approaches to the questions of the other. For an outsider looking at a text with the help of limited linguistic and cultural resources, whatever world the text belongs to, it offers only certain minor pleasures, certain side glances, certain deceptive giggles, like a sense of the national allegory, because an awareness of the nationality of the text is the most rudimentary reading tool many of us could take along when we encounter a literary production of the other.
Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London and New York: Verso, 1992.
Basheer, Vaikom Muhammad. Aanavaariyum Ponkurisum. 1953. Kottayam, India: DC Books, 1985.
Jameson, Fredric. "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.
Macauley, Thomas Babington. "Minute on Education" in Sources of Indian Tradition. Ed. William Theodore de Barry. New York: Columbia U P, 1958. 596-601.
Sembene, Osmane. "The False Prophet." African Short Stories. Ed. Chinua Achebe and C. L. Innes. London: Heinemann, 1985. 2-7.