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Tony Simoes da Silva

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Volume 1, May 1996

The Colonial Rise of the Novel (1993)

Firdous Azim, The Colonial Rise of the Novel (London: Routledge, 1993)

Firdous Azim's The Colonial Rise of the Novel is adapted from a "thesis which was originally written ... for the University of Sussex" (viii), and there are moments when the style retains the repetitious, pedagogic tone of an academic dissertation. Sentences repeated frequently will send the reader back and forth, wondering if through this very device s/he is somehow also being interpellated. To be sure, this seems to be an intrinsic part of Azim's prose, a certain poetic liberty which denotes the level of her personal involvement in the project of The Colonial Rise of the Novel. For as the author explains at the outset, the way in which Western feminist discourses often function by " ... deliberately ignoring other subject-positions" (37) is something she, as a Bangladeshi woman, and a 'Third world' academic, finds particularly disturbing.

The Colonial Rise of the Novel explores, therefore, Firdous Azim's unease about Western feminist practice which, in its concern with the celebration of the female self, has tailed to account for the role the novel has played within colonial expansion. Central to her thesis is the view that "thc novel is an imperialist project, based on the forceful eradication and obliteration of the Other" (37). Specifically, and following in Gayatri Spivak's footsteps, Azim identifies differences of class and race. She writes of the attention lavished on texts traditionally seen as revealing a feminist stance: "That many of these narrative voices were female has detracted critical attention from the imperialist and oppressive factors within the genre [novel]" (88). It is the latter element which Azim highlights and decries in her readings of Charlotte Bronte's works in particular, but also of a number of other 'major' texts of Western literature. She seeks to demonstrate the ways in which a feminist discourse of female emancipation has been unable to extend itself to 'certain types of Otherness': "there is no 'sisterly' attempt to understand [the Other woman]" (60). The Colonial Rise of the Novel is then an attempt at extracting from a number of texts traditionally read as feminist manifestos par excellence the various ways of silencing/marginalising of an Other which remains woman and other than.

Azim's candid admission, that she is only following a number of other critics, both when she re-places Aphra Behn's Oroonoko as the 'first English novel', rather than Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, or Gayatri Spivak's and Cora Kaplan's focus on race and class in their respective works, fails to diminish the impact of her own work. For she is far too modest in her own claims. As her discussion of Oroonoko shows, for instance, despite the overt imbrication of racial and sexual politics in the novel, feminist critics continue to focus largely on its construction of female subjectivity within the constraints of a patriarchal society. She notes of Maureen Duffy's in fluential biography of Aphra Behn: "By glossing over the fact that Oroonoko is a text where questions of race, sexuality and power are most powerfully portrayed, Duffy renders an incomplete and unsatisfactory reading of the novel" (44).

Drawing subsequently on Spivak's 1985 essay in Critical Inquiry, "Three Women's Texts", Azim goes on to explicate, in her reading of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the ways in which a feminist text known for its anti-patriarchal stance can, and does, function simultaneously as an intrinsic tool of other, larger, demands imposed by the discourses of imperialism and colonialism. Through a thematic analysis of Bronte's juvenilia, and primarily of its African element, Azim stresses Jane Eyre's implication within English imperialism: "The main theme running through Charlotte Bronte's juvenilia had been the establishment and consolidation of an English colony in West Africa" ( 147). In her readings of Charlotte Bronte's work, she goes on to argue quite convincingly for a re-appraisal of the novels and of the juvenilia as an integral part of the project of imperialist displacement of colonised peoples and their cultures. She notes:

Jane's protest at Rochester's comparison of herself with Turkish harem inmates, pointing to a hesitant and diffident recognition of the sexual oppression of all women and of the need for protest against such oppression, nonetheless places the educated Englishwoman in a position superior to her more unfortunate sisters, who are seen to need her guidance and to be infused with her recognition of their human status. (182)

Thus, in The Colonial Rise of the Novel, Azim offers an important contribution to the study of such 'mistress texts' of Western feminism as Jane Eyre, Roxana and Moll Flanders.

Yet, it is somewhat ironic that a book that starts by speaking of the difficulties of attempting to change the 'English canon' within a Bangladeshi university (1-5), should then embrace precisely the sort of works that the 'canon sanctifies'. Indeed, there is a sense in which, having initially been complicit in the process of turning the Other into an object of desire, the colonial novel has itself now become the desired object of postcolonial critical practices. For, by returning time and again to those 'classics' of European literature which have traditionally been allied to the project of colonial expansion, postcolonial critical practices continue to place the emphasis on the colonial rather than on the post-colonial.

Although hailed as "[a]n exceptionally powerful contribution to postcolonial criticism ... a major intervention in debates about the epistemological underpinnings of the Western novel" (Jack Bristow, back cover), The Colonial Rise of the Novel offers simply yet an-Other contribution to the enshrining of that very same Western, colonial, novel as more worthy of scholarly attention than the works of African, Caribbean or Asian authors. For as long as postcolonial critical theories continue to re-search the 'Western novel' for the multilayered levels of colonial(ist)) discourse, they are complicit in a process of marginalisation which is perhaps as iniquitous as that which it sets out to analyse and dissect. However unwittingly, works such as Azim's perpetuate the silencing and marginalisation of more recent writing produced in the various territories 'visited' by the ever inquisitive European discoverers.

Finally, when in its 'Afterword' The Colonial Rise of the Novel reveals its most openly postcolonial tone, it appears almost an 'Afterthought'. For in the end it matters little that we should know of Ngugi wa Thiong'o if we are not being encouraged to read his work. It matters even less that "young Indian girls" should be offered yet another, albeit an Other's, reading of Jane Eyre. What really is important is that a curriculum which sees such texts as the only appropriate reading matter for 'Young Indian girls', and perhaps 'not so young African boys', should be disrupted, reorganised, decolonised. What are we to make of Firdous Azim's own act of contrition as an academic teaching within a department of English when, given the opportunity to turn the tables, she opts for sitting down and engaging in a mildly dialectical conversation with the English / Colonial novel?

Azim asserts, towards the end of her work:

Literature, at one level, can be seen as history, as the fictions it erects reflect and express the stories and myths through which a nation and a culture choose to express themselves. The study of literature as history involves a study of the history of literature and of the ways in which literature is defined and the sites and modes of its dissemination. (214)

I couldn't agree more, but my fear, as I noted above, is that 'literature', although no longer capitalised, should still refer to those works which thc colonial curricula worked to consecrate. In other words, that works of literature "through which [an-Other] nation and culture choose to express themselves" should remain unread, un researched, and eventually unpublishable. Ultimate]y, textual studies such as The Colonial Rise of the Novel will ensure students of literature will read will continue to be Jane Eyre rather than Wide Sargasso Sea, Heart of Darkness and not Things Fall Apart or Arrow of God; Kim instead of Kanthapura. The point is not that such 'classic' texts should not be read, and analysed, but that they should be re-read against/along with contemporary examples of postcolonial writing such as Jean Rhys', Chinua Achebe's or Raja Rao's novels, for instance, just as Richard Hakluyt's Voyages might be looked at in light of George Lamming's Natives of My Person.


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