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Unraveling the Nation from Narration in Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace By Frederick Luis Aldama
"Unraveling the Nation from Narration in Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace"
It maybe said that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge--which gives rise to profound uncertainties--that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. (Rushdie, "Imaginary Homelands" 10)
It's become fashionable now since Jameson and so on to talk about Third World novels as being essentially about nation and nation building. I think that's just a load of rubbish. Many of my books, if not all of my books, have really been centered on families. To me the family is the central unit because it's not about the nation. [. . .] I think the reason why you see so many Indian books being essentially centered around the family is precisely because the nation is not, as it were, the central imaginative unit. So I think Jameson and Bhabha and all are completely wrong in their lopsided and ultimately not alert reading. (interview with Aldama 89)
Salman Rushdie identifies a narrative impulse to invent "imaginary homelands" that springs from loss and Amitav Ghosh highlights the family as the "central imaginative unit" in his fictions. For Rushdie and Ghosh and other South Asian diasporic writers generally, the family and home are central to their crafting of fictional lands. To engage powerfully their readers, such writers employ a variety of narrative points of views, genres, storytelling styles, and techniques. They organize their complex fictions not as documents aimed to alter and/or replace reality--the reality, say, of existing nations--but to enliven the imagination with unreal worlds that cohere. This is not to say that such writers offer escapes into nevernever lands. It simply means that a writer such as Amitav Ghosh carefully organizes his narrative elements so as to both engage the reader's creativity and simultaneously disengage him from confusing invented worlds with the world that exists hors texte. As Ghosh reminds us, his novels are centrally about family, but its members, their vicissitudes, the setting where they take place, and so on, have nothing to do with "real" families and everything to do with a very skilled and intellectually captivating narrative style. Ghosh and his fellow writers do not pretend that their novels have the same ontological status and power to alter the world out there as the texts (constitutions, legislations, decrees, treatises, political documents, and etc.), the political institutions (executive, legislative, and judicial powers, political parties, trade unions, and etc.), and the people, that have made and maintained nations for centuries. This most obvious clarification seems necessary in view of the opposite notion very widely held by cultural studies practitioners and literary theorists, among others, who read the complexly crafted and imagined postcolonial narrative fictions as "real" or equally reductively as only an allegory of nation. In Ghosh's words, this view is "lopsided"--and, not an "alert reading".
Indeed, much poststructuralist informed postcolonial theory looks to cultural phenomena (their preferred subjects being nowadays music, fashion, sports, as well as and especially literature) as signifying systems that either work with or against hegemonic power structures such as capitalism, colonialism, and the modern nation-state. All those phenomena are "theorized" as discursive constructs that, after such and such idiosyncratic decodings, are "revealed" to be equal in ontological status and agency as the identified hegemonic power structures. Thus, for poststructural postcolonialist critics such as Homi K. Bhabha the text (be it a novel or a political document ) is the world (real and imagined) and the world is the text.
Amitav Ghosh throws down the gauntlet with his The Glass Palace, challenging such postcolonial critics to confuse narrative fiction with reality of nation by writing a historical novel, a narrative whose fictional edges bleed more readily into the empirically verifiable facts of the "real" historical record. The Glass Palace unfolds over a hundred years of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial Burmese history as families are formed and individual characters experience loss and joy. Social organizations such as feudalism are destroyed and new ones formed in the guise of the colonial and postcolonial nation-state. Obviously, The Glass Palace is not, as Frederic Jameson claims generally of postcolonial literature, a "national allegory" (65) projecting de facto a subaltern epistemology that is an "allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society" (65). Also, it does not serve as a vehicle to articulate, as Azade Seyhan writes generally of such postcolonial narrations, a "countermemory" (154) that resists and radically reforms "ethnocentric epistemologies" (154). Neither is it an expression of an "exilic ontology" (92), as Emily Apter identifies of the postcolonial novel. Nor is it the resistant and revolutionary voice of a subaltern "third space" as Homi Bhabha would have. The Glass Palace is a narrative that gravitates around the experiences of a variety of multigenerational, diasporic Indian/Burmese characters during a historical period (the late 19th century to the end of the 20th) filled with battles won and lost over Burma's territories (the British then Japanese invasions, for example); it is a novel that reflects obliquely the great tectonic shifts that took place in changes of rule and national policy that effect the everyday of its character's lives. As such, The Glass Palace's characters, plot, and events can open its reader's eyes to acts of forced displacement and even genocides of peoples that took place historically; it can re-visit grand historical events from different perspectives, such as that of Ghandi's attempt at a social revolution seen from the angle of vision of the female character, Uma. It can act as a creative response to and a reflection of experience in this world by a process of empathy with the characters and their circumstances and changing fortunes. But, of course, The Glass Palace is not a symbolic representation of nation nor is it an expression of the "real" experiences of real people (rich and poor) during such a tempestuous historical period in Burma. It is a work of fiction, a novel whose complex organization deftly balances the referential (characters described in line with real people, places that have houses, mountains, rivers, and so on, like real world locations, and historical events that can be recognized as such) with the imaginary to open its doors for readers to enter into and engage with its "possible worlds" (cf. Pavel).
Narration as Nation?
The boundary between literary study and political praxis has dissolved for the poststructuralist postcolonial theorist. For this to happen, both the subject and its products and the material and social world must be theorized as texts (or discourses). Literature and political and historical discourse must be held to be equal. Accordingly, Azade Seyhan identifies literature "as one signifying system among others" (152). To do so, all texts and cultural phenomena must be seen as signifying constructs, a point of view based on a very peculiar interpretation of a linguistic theory formulated almost a century ago by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. For most poststructuralist postcolonial theorists and cultural studies practitioners, to act against, say, colonialism, or to unseat, say, Western ontology, it would suffice simply to decode their signifying systems: to decode the discourses that naturalize hierarchies of difference (Western as civil vs. non-Western as primitive, for example). Consequently, if both text and world are nothing but a signifying system, then The Glass Palace is as real as the reality outside the text, so the mere act of interpreting the novel not only destablizes exoticist narratives of difference but generates a counter-narrative with the power to disrupt those master signifying systems that make colonialism mean in the real world. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha proposes a number of these decodings--variously identified as "mimicry", "radical hybridity", "colonial nonsense," "politics of asavagism", to name a few--of novels such as V.S. Naipaul's House for Mr. Biswas and Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. For example, he identifies the "mimicry" in the postcolonial novel as a sign of "double articulation" (86) where the text (the written text of the novel and the spoken text of the character) both exists within and uncritically replicates as well as threatens to disrupt the regulative rules of a disciplining colonial signifying system that imposes the English language as the standard and that exercises a close surveillance of subaltern bodies and knowledge systems. To confer to a novel like House for Mr. Biswas such power to resist and/or conform to a colonial hegemony, Bhabha, taking his lead from Derrida's différence, must muddle up Saussure's linguistic theory. Saussure considered that a sign was an indivisible (psychological) unit formed by a signifier (acoustic image/phoneme) and a signified (mental image/concept), representing such and such aspect of reality (referent). To repeat: according to Saussure, the two components of the sign (signifier and signified) are psychological entities and they are not separable, and the sign is the most basic element for communication to take place within a given linguistic community (Spanish or English, say). When Bhabha mistakenly identifies a slippage between the signifier and signified, he is speaking nonsense in any accurate interpretation of Saussure's theory of the sign. Within this slippage, Bhabha considers meaning deferrable, and the subject and world experienced by the subject unstable and fragmented. However, according to him, in order to make the subject and the world seem coherent and whole, those with power construct master narratives of wholeness that ideologically manipulate the sign to naturalize difference. Homi Bhabha theorizes an "interstitial gap" between signifiers (mistaking acoustic image/phoneme for the sign) where resistance to meaning can take place ("meaning" as Derrida formulates, not in the presence of the signifier and the referent but in the aporias between signifiers). He also theorizes the subaltern subject's formation by and through a colonial discourse, but one that can resist "inter dicta" (89). Therefore, to identify the "interstitial passage between fixed identifications" (4) is to re-form dominant signifying systems. To inhabit such interstitial passages with a "radical hybridity" is to radically alter the master narratives of oppression and subjugation. At the end of Location of Culture, Bhabha positions postcolonial discourse generally--textual texts and textual subjects--not just in said gap that is "neither signifier nor signified" (181), but also "outside the sentence" (181) and therefore outside of discourses of power. To posit such an esoteric resistance strategy, Bhabha must not only mistake the signifier for the sign (the part for the whole), but also quite simply distort the nature of the relationship between signifier and signified in language, as conceived by Saussure.
To say that there are gaps between words is true and to say that it is often difficult to find the right words to express a concept is also true. However, to say that meaning is made in a gap between one acoustic image or phoneme and another acoustic image is plain nonsense from any linguistic point of view, and to say that the signifier and signified can be separated and then manipulated to change reality is more than absurd. If somehow one were able to rip apart Saussure's signifier and signified, words within a given language community would become mere meaningless sounds. Absolute nonsense (better still, muteness) would preside. No communication could take place and there would be no possibility for exchanging information, say, concerning oppressive conditions, and that would impede the necessary organization of people in need of a real social transformation.
In order for subaltern subject/text to resist or destablize hegemonic signifying systems "inter dicta", not only must Bhabha muddle a very simple and primitive linguistic theory, but he must add to this a misconception of how power functions within colonial rule and, more generally, within capitalism and the capitalist nation-state. According to Bhabha, who takes his lead from Michel Foucault's conception of power, there is room for contestation and resistance because colonialism is an unstable system of signification. The subaltern subject as a construct of colonial discourse is, for Bhabha, a "repertoire of conflictual positions" (204) that can intervene or not in the struggle against colonialism because this form of domination is constructed through discourse and therefore is uneven and incomplete. Thus, the moment colonialism exerts its force is precisely the moment that resistance forms in its interstices. But why even posit such an intervention if, by a logical extension of Bhabha's formulation, colonialism by its very existence as an unstable entity of power, will ultimately fail? It is the same question we might ask of Foucault, who identifies a "plurality of resistances" (Bhabha's "radical hybridity") that is de facto formed within a dominant power structure (a capitalist surveillance system that normalizes heterosexuality, for example). By this token, we no longer need to locate power in the ruling class or the State it controls or the institutional structures it creates and handles, nor do we need to look for the "source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary" (History of Sexuality 96). Bhabha, following Foucault, considers that power is everywhere, but if that assertion were true, then power would be nowhere. Also like Foucault before him, Bhabha must theorize the simultaneity of power with resistance in order to make his "radical hybridity" work; to this end he must theorize out of existence the "real" exploitive and oppressive systems of colonial rule. This self deconstruction of an oppressive and exploitive social structure, however, does little but promote a lack of real social mobilization and resistance; it ultimately celebrates symbolic forms of resistance in cultural phenomena and literature and dangerously dislocates and permanently erases the real site (the State apparatus) of the real ruling class (the private owners of the means of production and distribution) asserting its power through its all too real institutions (mainly the executive, legislative and judicial powers) that are used to dominate, oppress and exploit the very real subaltern subjects.
If colonial power is a discursive construction and its simultaneous resistance textual, then it is not surprising that Bhabha considers that a nation is itself a narration--and concomitantly, that narration is nation. In the introduction to his edited collection of essays, Nation and Narration, Bhabha defines the nation as formed by "textual strategies, metaphoric displacements, sub-texts and figurative stratagems" (2). To confront the nation, then, is to encounter it "as it is written" (2). Again, like his formulation of colonialism as signifying system, the nation is fragmented. Bhabha must formulate the nation as made up of "scraps, patches, and rags of daily signs" (297) in order for him to identify a resistance in the "language of metaphor" (291), for example, that makes up postcolonial narratives (especially the novel's "double-writing") that counter the nation ("dissemi-nation") with their hybrid histories and "displacement of narratives" (319) that promise the re-imagining of postcolonial "nation-people" (291).
While Bhabha theorizes the form of the novel ("double-writing") as the site for contestatory acts of "dissemi-nation", other poststructuralist postcolonial theorists identify localized epistemological spaces as resistant sites. In his essay "Postmodernism and the Rest of the World" R. Radhakrishnan, for example, celebrates the "embattled rhetoric of home" (39) as just such a resistant site to a homogenizing global capitalist nation-state. The rhetoric of home opens up the possibility and identification of a localized subjectivity and epistemology that can be "deployed strategically to resist the economic impulse toward sameness" (39). Again, however, for R. Radhakrishnan to posit a postcolonial rhetoric of home as "radical epistemology" (48) that resists such oppressive paradigms as the Western postmodern disdain for "the category home" (48), he must confuse language for cultural phenomena; he must repeat the postructuralist systematic muddling up of signifier with sign, the home of postcolonial fiction with the homes made and inhabited by real subaltern peoples.
Against the Grain of Home and Nation
If The Glass Palace--or any novel for that matter--is a narrative fiction that is bound only to the conventions of narrative aesthetics and not to a radical transformation of the reality beyond its pages, then what else follows from the assertion that nation is narration? What is entailed from the compulsive need to fantasize about counter-narratives that resist the nation?
The nation is not an imagined community. Nor is the nation a signifying system or linguistic construct. In fact, in modern times the nation has represented the most positive drive towards democracy. Without the nation as a political framework in which wage workers can struggle to obtain and to protect their basic rights, exploitation and oppression would be complete. So, when Bhabha et al. propose that a "radical hybrid" narrative actually destablize and transform the nation, even if it is no more than hot air or perhaps utopian fantasy, the proposal itself is politically dangerous; it would entail the application of the policy that the Bush administration and the American ruling class is seeking to apply today worldwide: the destruction of all institutional structures and laws that protect the working classes and the exploited and oppressed populations in every country. The only way they can hope to fend off exploitation and oppression is to continue the fight that they have been fighting for some two centuries: the organized struggle for the right to build their own politically independent parties, to build their own independent unions, to obtain and preserve the equal right to a secular education, to free medical care, to public transportation services everywhere, to the total freedom of organization, expression and representation for the all. In short, to fight for and to maintain those institutions and laws that make for a democratic nation and that are being eroded by the bourgeoisie in India and the United States, in Asia and the Middle East, in Africa and Australia and Latin America. The destruction of nation-states without the destruction of capitalism would not translate into a utopian world filled with radical hybrid subjects, but rather into the worldwide spread of barbarism, of the warlordism and slavery that we have already seen in places like Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. Moreover, to theorize a utopian third space resistance that supposedly exists between the lines of signification is to disrespect the memory of the millions of people that struggle and have been struggling for generations with massive costs to lives in order to establish and maintain the democratic rights that they have forced the nation to adopt and to uphold.
Because capitalism cannot do without its own foundational principle--the right to privatize property--the bourgeoisie has had to accept reluctantly the existence of laws generally, including those that protect the laboring class. Hence, the importance of the nation not as enemy to subaltern struggles worldwide, but as the very political framework in which all the wage-earners and the oppressed peoples can fight to obtain and preserve--even against the most violent opposition of the ruling classes--their democratic rights. So, in the name of radical hybridity and revolutionary "third space" narrations, Bhabha et al. could be actually positing the destruction of a most fundamental barrier that remains between the working class and peasants and their complete and total enslavement.
Of course, Bhabha's formulation of postcolonial narrative as counter-nation relies on the highly speculative idea that the nation is made up of narratives that gel together and create "imaginary communities". One might simply ask, what has literature actually done to create the nation of India, or even closer to home, the nation of Mexico? How have narrative fictions altered or contributed to alter the northern boundaries of the territory of Mexico in 1836 and after the U.S. invasion in 1846-48? How did narrative fictions alter the way Spain viewed Mexico during the eleven year war of independence that led to Mexican sovereignty? What did literature have to do with the middle and working class uprisings that led to the American war of independence from the ruling British class that had imposed tax levies and prohibited trade on its colony to force it to be a territory that would consume only British goods. How have narrative fictions created nations in Africa, when the continent was mostly divided up by lines traced with rulers on maps in political drawing rooms in France, Belgium and England? What does narrative fiction have to do with the creation of nations in central Europe, including Yugoslavia? The main problem with the highly speculative statements made by Bhabha et al., is that they not only cover over the harsh facts of material reality--among them, the blood shed in the creation of nations and the millions of people involved in that process--but they also resist the most elementary confrontation with historical reality. Namely, that literature has never been a material force in the formation of nation.
Narrative fiction, then, for Bhabha et al. doesn't just reflect or recreate reality and bring to the table things that happen, but they invest it with a god-like power to create and transform reality. At best, this can be read as a response to our contemporary world that promises little in the form of real social change; to that extent, the utopian impulse can be justified. At worst, this is an extremely dangerous promotion of an arm-chair political praxis that denies the real need for class struggle against concrete, actual, present day problems that have plagued the working classes worldwide since the rise of capitalism. As Antony Easthope writes of Bhabha's "radical hybridity" and its destabilizing of discourse, knowledge, and power, this "theorizing" coincides "with one of the more pervasive fantasies of our time: that reading texts otherwise changes the world" (Privileging Difference 60).
Reading The Glass Palace as Literature
The Glass Palace is chock full of hyphenated (Burmese-Indian, Anglo-Indian, for example) characters who seek a sense of place and belonging--a home--within homelands torn apart by colonialist and imperialist invasions and civil wars. It is a novel whose story stretches out from and around the experiences of South Asian hybrid characters as grand historical events of nation unfold. In a review of The Glass Palace Chris Higashi calls the novel "a multigenerational saga" that "is a wonderful, satisfying blend of history and storytelling" (132). When all is said and done, however, The Glass Palace is more storytelling than history. Its primary concern is for its story to engage and affect its readers.
The Glass Palace is filled with unrequited love and passionate consummation of desire; it is a narrative of dramatic adventure, great migrations, and unbelievable chance encounters. It is also packed with historically verifiable details, such as colonial India's invasion of Burma, and announces dates in chapter headings to remind of the plot's imbrication with historical chronology. However, its thematic material is carefully organized according to the principles that govern the crafting of fiction: language, narrative technique, and genre. Contrary to what many poststructuralist postcolonialists venture to say, even at the most basic understanding, the biographically verifiable author Amitav Ghosh does not correspond one-to-one with the fictional characters he invents nor the narrator he employs to shape the narrative. Nor, for that matter, do his characters represent real people. Characters are not, as Dorit Cohn comments, "free subjects who can potentially escape their graphic prison and make fictional subjects of--or even talk back to--their author or narrator" (171). They are, as this same critic remarks, "equally inhabitants of the same conflicted fictional world" (171). And those disciplinary spaces--colonialism, capitalism and otherwise--in The Glass Palace are only representations and not the real disciplinary spaces where the powerful rule over the powerless in the real world. Finally, language–the very substance of The Glass Palace-- has, as Lubomîr Dolezel aptly reminds, "weak performative power" (253). Namely, while it can help solidify a group and communicate its needs to bring about changes in everyday social relations and affairs, as Dolezel continues, "it cannot create the actual world that exists and goes on independently of language and any other representation. The only kind of worlds that human language is capable of creating or producing is possible worlds" (253). That is, The Glass Palace is the stuff of fiction that can open eyes to the brutalities of (neo) colonialism--and more--and not a text that can resist, intervene, and/or fundamentally transform anything, much less the everyday reality of millions of people living within a national space shaped by history and governed by laws.
The Glass Palace also includes a recorded history. The immediate impulse, then, would be to read this novel as a postcolonial text that revises and dramatically transforms Anglo-colonial biased histories that traditionally have silenced and/or erased the subaltern presence and agency. The novel's revisiting of historical event might be read as a symbolic and real restoration of subaltern history and cultural memory that, as Azade Seyhan comments generally, "accord meaning, purpose, and integrity to the past" (15). To read accordingly, one must blur the boundary between the category of fiction and non-fiction, novel and history. However, the organization of the narrative components and of characterization in The Glass Palace does the opposite. It educates its reader to re-enforce the border between the empirically verifiable historical reality and the narrative fiction. For example, Ghosh invents a third-person narrator that relates a story in a helical fashion that simultaneously fictionalizes and makes real historical subject and event. By making real, the narrator represents the characters (whether factually based, like the Burmese King Thebaw, or fictionally based like the protagonist, Rajkumar) as "real" according to the terms of the fictional narration. As such, the narrative often slips into free indirect discourse to open up free-flow of information between the reader and the character's interiority. The narrator of the historical novel can see and enter into all characters' minds; the author of a factual, historical narrative cannot. So although Ghosh employs a third-person omniscient narrator that exists at a remove from the storyworld, it is not bound by the conventions of the work of history. Such work also uses a "third person narrator", but it does so announcing explicitly that it is the point of view of the trained historian with a scholarly interest in historical document and ethnographic material. This historically bound narrator is tied to referential obligations that aim at establishing a one-to-one correspondence between the facts represented and the verifiable reality of the world. (Ghosh's narrator is not bound by chronological convention, he even makes huge leaps in history--1919 to 1929--with the turn of a page.) When historically bound narrator does not know something, the scientific aims are not abandoned, on the contrary, it announces to the reader its lack of knowledge.
And so where narrator of historical narrative is constrained by the demands of truth and the facts found in archival, autobiographical, and/or anecdotal sources, the narrator of the historical novel is free to imagine and invent the "facts". Lubomîr Dolezel further clarifies the distinction, identifying "historical noeisis" as writing that constructs "models of the past that exits (existed) prior to the act of writing" (262), and "fictional poiesis" as the invention of a "possible world that did not exist prior to the act of writing" (262). The Glass Palace, then, uses "models of the past" to enrich the creative invention of a "possible world". Here, factually verifiable characters acquire fictional dimensions and can interact with those of purely invented flesh and blood. The fictional Rajkumar can fall in love with the invented handmaiden pointing to the real historical figure Queen Supayalat. And, as the narrative unfolds, the reader witnesses such a "real" figure as the Queen increasingly migrate over into, as Dolezel identifies, the "semantic and pragmatic conditions of the fictional environment" (Dolezel, 264). The force of fictional narrative is such that it pulls the factual characters into its world without asking its readers to question such a move; without asking its readers to look beyond its pages for a one-to-one verification between textual representation and an ontologically independent and temporally prior set of events--archived data--that existed prior to the act of writing.
History percolates. . .
At the outset, The Glass Palace educates its reader to interpret its narrative as a historical narrative. Before entering the storyworld proper, history is foregrounded. The following titles appear as paratextual preface material: W.S. Desai's Deposed King Thebaw of Burma in India, 1885-1916, Patricia Herbert's The Hsaya San rebellion Reappraised, and Majjhima Nikaya and Amyutta Nikaya collection, The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan. Verifiable historical figures and events as well as dates and cultural document begin to condition the reader's approach to the text--a text situated within the historically and culturally verifiable. The list of texts identifiable as historical and cultural document is far from exhaustive, however. And given the discrepancy between the length of The Glass Palace (five-hundred-plus pages) and this short list of archival material, the reader quickly grasps that narrative fiction is central and that the narrative which has a one-to-one correspondence with historical record is subordinate to the purposes of the fictional story-telling. This paratextual frame (and there are other paratextual elements that enhance this effect, such as the jacket cover blurbs and the publisher's identification of the book as a novel) helps pave the way for a reader's first encounter with the text itself. The narrative begins: "There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay's fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven--not an authority to be relied upon" (3). Unlike the narrative conventions found in historical narratives, here the third-person announces its omniscience--commenting on a character's knowing what the sound was that rolled across the plain and also having a knowledge of this character's unreliability--and quickly shows its deft control over an in media res flow of information. The narrator does not just relate the information, it uses language, syntax, imagery, and sequence to engage the reader with its dramatic effect. Canon fire doesn't just happen, its sounds are described as "rolling across the plain"; the Irrawaddy river doesn't simply exist, it is given poetic attributes ("silver curve") that help the reader imagine the canon sound as it weaves in and out of the river's curves. The narrative has established the contours of its contract: that the reader will give priority to reading the text as a narrative fiction first and secondarily to reading it as historical document. From the beginning to the last sentence of the book, the reader is to acknowledge the presence of historical fact but not to privilege it over fictional invention.
To solidify the privileging of fiction over fact in the reader's mind, Ghosh's narrator spends the first three pages of the novel breathing life into the invented character, Rajkumar. The narrator does not introduce the "real" historical figures King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat until after he has introduced Rajkumar. Once this is done, the story of the historical figures (whom, after the British invasion of Burma, experience life as dispossessed exiles in India) becomes increasingly fictionalized as it becomes interwoven into the lives of the fictional characters and their stories. Fiction overwhelms fact as the reader submerges into the story of Rajkumar's Horatio Alger rise to monetary glory, his romancing of the queen's handmaiden, Dolly, and the subsequent adventures and romances of their sons: the naive photographer Dinu and the pragmatic materialist Neele. Within this world the reader also meets the character Arjun, an Indian soldier fighting for the British army, but who realizes that his use of British-isms like "yaar" and "spiffing" simply mask his own complicity in the oppression of South Asian people. And the reader encounters the politically active character, Uma, whose adventures in India opens the reader's eyes to India's early 20th-century campaigns for independence.
The verifiable historical event that percolates through the fictional narrative functions not just to open reader's eyes to, say, Ghandi's 1942 Quit India movement, but as part of Ghosh's tool box for creating a dramatic narrative that engages the reader. For example, when the Japanese invade Burma, it cuts short the deeply moving romance between sympathetic characters Dinu and Alice, causing the reader's emotions to surge. Historical event also acts as a springboard for a creative reinterpretation of history. While the real British invasion of Burma was the violent act of imposing a brutally oppressive colonial regime through much shedding of innocent blood, in the world of the novel it can be this and also the seed-event that later leads to the love story that follows the Burmese princesses and their love affairs with those of a lower caste: The First Princess falls in love with the Royal family's former coachman, Sawant, and the Second Princesses elopes with " a Burmese commoner" (204). So that the historically verifiable events such as the mention of the British imperial fleet crossing the Indian/Burma border "on 14 November, 1885" (25) or the mention of the 1942 Japanese bombing of Rangoon become kernel-events that seed new plots or turn stories into different directions. Also, historical event can give cause for deep psychological probing of a character's interiority. For example, it is not until the Japanese Inspired Fifth Columnists (JIF) defeat the British army in Burma (historically verifiable) that the character Arjun has his epiphany, realizing his own complicity with colonialism. And, on other occasions, historical event clears the space for a character to speak critically about the world. For example, when the character Uma talks to Dinu about Hitler and Mussolini, the reader learns that such fascist dictatorships have already been a lived reality for Indians since the British conquest: "How many tens of millions of people have perished in the process of the Empire's conquest of the world--in its appropriation of entire continents?" (294). Finally, the presence of History as discipline gives shape to a third-generation character, Jaya, who studies history and "the huge collection of the documents and papers that Uma had left her, in her will" (449) to make her life and the world better.
. . .but Romance Predominates
Grand historical events of colonial and postcolonial nation pull at and stretch out the fictional canvas of The Glass Palace. However, it is the romance narrative that predominates. When Rajkumar sees Dolly for the first time, the narrator remarks that she was "by far the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld, of a loveliness beyond imagining" (34). It is his vision of Dolly that sets his quest in motion. That is, romance leads to the rise and fall of three generations of family in grand epic proportion. It begins at the end of the 19th century with Rajkumar setting out to build his fortune--always with the idea that his acquired wealth will win the hand of Dolly; that his upward mobility--from street urchin to teak mogul--will enable him to provide for family and ensure his legacy. It finishes three generations later at the end of the 20th century with the character Jaya re-collecting a record of family through shards of archival document. For such characters as Rajkumar and Jaya, there is the impulse towards family--biologically and culturally--to find a sense of belonging. It is their lack of family that both generates this desire to create one anew and frees them of the traditional constraints of this institution. On one occasion, Rajkumar tells his loved-one, Dolly: "I have no family, no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no fabric of small memories from which to cut a large cloth. People think this sad and so it is. But it means also that I have no option but to choose my own attachments" (147). He reads this lack of attachment as "a freedom of a kind" (147) that allows him to re-make family not according to racial, caste, or national dictates: the first son is named Sein Win ( Burmese ) Neeladhri (Indian) and looks "more Indian than Burmese in build and colouring" (202), and the second son is named Tun Pe (Burmese) Dinanth (Indian) who is described as inheriting Dolly's "delicate features as well as her ivory complexion and fine-boned slimness of build" (202). Both sons affirm the forming of a new family populated by racially and culturally mixed subjects. Finally, the novel charts the positive side-effect of crumbling family structures that allows for the making of new communities based on common social understanding. After the character Uma's husband dies and she moves from India to New York, she begins to build an ad-hoc family. In a new land and free of oppressive gendered roles and duties, she becomes the new matriarch for a "small but dense net" of "explorers" and "castaways" whose lineage is that of political and social change. Finally, then, in The Glass Palace, family is not just biological, but it is that which allows one to build social matrices through non-reproductive means.
Family is central to The Glass Palace not just in terms of content, but also form. Its narrator uses the realist storytelling mode to give texture to its characters' experiences in the storyworld and uses even historical event to fill out this telling, but it is the romance genre that functions as its narrative container. In a review of the novel, Pankaj Mishra is critical of the novel's over reliance on the "idea of sexual love as redemption from history" (7) and is critical of the characters because, as he writes, "king and peasant alike in The Glass Palace lack a complex inner life" (7). And finally, Mishra is critical of the novel's "childish" representation of people who lack "self-knowledge" and that are characterized as having only "simple longings and frustrations" (7). Mishra, however, misses the mark. While it is true that many of the characters lack full psychological and emotional depth and complexity--Queen Supayalat is easily identified as one--this type of non-rounded characterization is part and parcel of the romance genre convention. This has nothing to do with representing the characters as child-like or undeveloped and everything to do with generic convention. As we know from its long history, the romance novel is one that is characterized not just by a storyworld filled with quests and courtings, but a form that is deliberately episodic and that can cover massive social, historical, and geographic landscapes. (As Don Quixote rides across Spain to prove his valor and win the honor of his sweet Dulcinea, he uncovers the tensions and contradictions of Spain's move from a feudal to modern social order, for example.) The deep psychological character development that characterizes the bildungsroman is the means to an entirely different goal. The romance is less concerned with individual psychology than with archetypes. In his taxonomy of different storytelling modes, Northrop Frye nicely sums this up, writing, "the romancer does not attempt to create 'real people' so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes" (304). And, unlike bildungsroman that often provides smooth veneer to cover over its generic borrowings, the romance often genre makes visible its cracks and seams to disengage ever so slightly the reader's engagement with its storyworld. Robert Kiely identifies the romance genre as a "patchwork" of storytelling devices, themes, genres, and aesthetic aims that sometimes "produces the literary counterpart of Frankenstein's monster" but that can nonetheless reveal a new glimpse into life and fashion a "new idea of art" (3). Pankaj Mishra's dismissal of the novel is based on a misreading of the novel's participation within the conventions of this genre. The Glass Palace can both engage the reader at the level of the storyworld and disengage and remind the reader that they are reading narrative fiction at the level of form. The Glass Palace wants to tell us more than the psychological transformation of a protagonist. It wants to give the reader a sense of a massive historical and social landscape.
Narration is much more than Nation
While a critic such as Pankaj Mishra is dismissive (indirectly) of the romance genre, theorists such as Dorris Sommer and Nancy Armstrong have identified it as a genre that has the power to critique and/or uncritically resist patriarchal, capitalist nation-state formation. For Sommer it naturalizes a patriarchal nationalism that valorizes heterosexism and biological reproduction (see her Foundational Fictions). For Armstrong, it allows a writer like Jane Austen to wrest power (at least symbolically) from a patriarchal state (see her Desire and Domestic Fiction). More radically, in Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 theorist Franco Moretti identifies how a careful decoding of the romance genre can reveal it to be a participant within a "geonarrative system" (17) that seductively masks capitalist nation formation. Moretti contends that it is the romance--and novel generally--that has the unique capacity to represent the nation. He interprets Jane Austen's romance plots that begin with family and home about to be disrupted as rewriting in the form of a "seductive journey" the "painful reality of territorial uprooting" (18). And, he reads her happy ends as the joining together of "a local gentry, like the Bennets of pride and Prejudice" with the "national elite of Darcy and his ilk" (18), concluding, that her novels "take the strange, harsh novelty of the modern state--and turn it into a large, exquisite home" (18). The preoccupation with romance genre as somehow tied to nation formation is not surprising. There is no doubt about the historical coincidence between the appearance of romance novel and the formation of the modern capitalist nation-state. Cervantes's Don Quixote appeared at the moment when the bourgeoisie was beginning its long struggle to take power in Spain, for example. And, in this historical conjunction, this seminal novel can be read as a matrix for the modern novel--growing out of the parodic opposition and engagement with earlier medieval romance conventions--that follows the life of neither peasant nor aristocrat, but rather an average guy with enough money to own books and have the leisure to read them and to go out to see the world. So while Don Quixote appeared at the very early stages of capitalist growth and the novel started to crystallize as the storytelling vehicle capable of describing this new reality (more democratic in content and form than, say, the courtly romance or the epic poem), it ultimately does not prove a useful model for reading a postcolonial avatar of a romance novel like The Glass Palace. Reading The Glass Palace as participating within "geonarratives" that critique and/or uncritically reproduce the nation--colonial, capitalist or otherwise--leads one back to a Jamesonean reduction of narrative fiction to allegory and/or historical document. Moretti's approach misses the fact that Ghosh uses the romance genre to chart the stories of a panoply of characters who may or may not reflect on a history of colonialism in Burma and the formation of the present Myanmar nation. Also, the novel may affirm the re-constitution of family as hybrid (culturally and biologically) and postcolonial, but, the romance genre also powerfully reminds the reader--with its use of flat characters and visible juxtaposition of genres--that The Glass Palace is to be read as narrative fiction told from a different angle and that sheds new light on the world we inhabit.
In his essay "Notes on Writing and the Nation" Salman Rushdie writes, "Beware the writer who sets himself or herself up as the voice of nation" (60). Such reductively predetermined writing will ultimately lead, he concludes, "to the murder of thought" (60). To this I add: beware the critic who sets up the nation as narration for it flattens out those grand cartographies of the imagination; it cuts short the life of narrative fiction's ability to map possible worlds. Reading, then, The Glass Palace not as a document of nation but as a narrative fiction that employs a complex helical narrative structure to richly texture its many characters' identities and experiences, allows us to see how this novel is able to revitalize the power of the romance genre and of the historical novel as told from a new, postcolonial point of view. To read The Glass Palace thus is to enlarge the narrative contact zones between those genres and to shatter the interpretive lens that systematically confuses aesthetics with ontological facts--to shatter the wish-fulfillment fantasies of certain critics who choose to conflate narration with nation and nation with narration.