«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one‘s imagination; that her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more nor less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all. (The Shadow Lines 27) When the narrator arrives in London and is taken to meet old Mrs Price for the first time, he astonishes the others by his knowledge of the city‘s geography. He is capable of finding the house without a map, although he has never visited the area
It was easy enough on the A to Z street atlas of London that my father had brought me. I knew page 43, square 2, by heart: Lymington Road ought to have been right across the road from where we were. But now that we had reached the place I knew best, I was suddenly uncertain. The road opposite us was lined with terraces of cheerfully grimy redbrick houses, stretching all the way down the lenght of the road. The houses were not as high or as angular as I had expected. (The Shadow Lines 63) As Meenakshi Mukherjee has observed, in the novel "the realignment of the sense of geography happens through an acknowledgement of the subjective space that all human beings inhabit" as well as by "plotting the different points of the globe on the accurately measured pages of the Bartholomew Atlas" with its Euclidian space (Mukherjee 2000, 135). The narrator has united the lines and figures on the map he had examined in Calcutta with the images of the area he had created from Tridib‘s stories of war-time Lymington Road. But small discrepancies appear in combining these images with the real material London of the late 70s: the houses do not look right. This is partly due to the relation between an image of a place never personally perceived and the real appearance of this place; they cannot be totally interchangeable. Also, the image of the narrator belongs to a different time dimension (that of 1939) than that of his first actual encounter with the real place. The physical aspect of the area may have changed during the forty odd years in between. However, this is not a problem for the narrator, who has his preferences: ―I wanted to know England not as I saw her, but in her finest hour every place chooses its own, and to me it did not seem an accident that England had chosen hers in a war‖ (The Shadow Lines 62). England‘s finest hour occurred when Tridib visited London, or so it seems to the narrator, who cherishes the stories of war-time London and Lymington Road.
On their way to Mrs Price‘s house, the narrator shows off by naming streets and buildings as they pass them. He claims that an incendiary bomb had fallen on a house called Lymington Mansions on Solent Road on October 1st, 1940, and destroyed the whole street. Robi insists that the Germans had developed that kind of bomb much later in the war. The narrator insists that his version is correct, because Tridib told him so. ―How was he to know? He was just a kid, nine years old. Every little bomb probably seemed like an earthquake to him,‖ says Robi (The Shadow Lines 60-1). Obviously, Robi is placing his historiographical information before that of Tridib‘s actual lived experience, which is the one the narrator believes. The question of authority regarding the two versions is left open; the argument does not continue. There has recently been a demand for the "provincialization" of European nationalist historiography by means of writing over it other kinds of narratives of human connections that rely on dreamt-up pasts for their validity.2 I am here referring especially to Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000, 49), who is affiliated with the Subaltern Studies group. This group, founded by Ranajit Clearly here we have a dreamt-up version of the past of the Solent Road that is based on a quite peculiar chain of human connections.
Later Robi and the narrator go to take a look at the supposedly bombed-out Solent Road. The road, of course, looks like any other road in London. The narrator notices a small car at the side of the road and finds himself ―suddenly absorbed in the trappings of the lives that went with that car.‖ What is peculiar here is that he is not interested in the material present of Solent Road or the car. He has his images of the road in bombed-out condition and, on seeing the car, he immediately begins to imagine the lives of the people who use it. He comments on the present state of the road by saying that naturally he did not expect to see what Tridib had seen all those years earlier. He continues: ―But despite that, I still could not believe in the truth of what I did see […] it seemed to me still that Tridib had shown me something truer about Solent Road a long time ago in Calcutta‖ (The Shadow Lines 62).
The narrator seems to be occupied with a phenomenon that Jameson links with modernism, both epistemologically and generically. He is in a situation in which "we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be true; and that if a scientific or cognitive model of the same content is true, then it escapes individual experience" (Jameson 1991, 411). To begin with, the narrator refuses to integrate received (spatial as well as temporal) versions of London (the map of the city, the details of official history, even eye-sight) and his own imaginary construction, which he considers more truthful than the others. In a sense, he is presented as being superior to his British friends in this respect: as a member of a colonized group he has knowledge, and quite intimate knowledge at that, of the colonizers world.
The same cannot be said in reverse. When May Price comes for a visit to Calcutta, she is frightened by the strange country and shuts herself in her hotel room.
Guha in the early 1980s, aims to write anew the histories of the Subcontinent, highlighting the part the subaltern classes have played in the process. The group will be examined in more detail in section II.3.1. and the first article.
One evening Ila and Nick Price take the narrator to see the area that has become the Indian area of London. They walk along Brick Lane, which the narrator is eager to see because he remembers it as the street where Nick‘s uncle used to live before the war, when it was a Jewish area. Again, he is surprised at what he sees: "The first surprise that was waiting for me was that it wasn't a lane at all […] I had no means of recognizing the place I saw; it did not belong anywhere I had ever been" (The Shadow Lines 100). He had imagined the street to look like the lanes he had seen in Oxford, but what he finds is buzzing district thronged with people speaking "in a dozen dialects of Bengali" and Indian shops with Bengali neon-signs. When Nick points out a building that used to be a synagogue in the Jewish period of the area, he exclaims that Nick‘s uncle and his friends lived in its vicinity before the war. Nick appears incredulous, and the narrator leads them to the building where Alan Tresawsen allegedly lived. The narrator describes the windows of the house, one of which is boarded over with wooden planks. The other one is open and they can discern edges of curtains inside. The narrative continues: "That was the window of Dan‘s bedroom, I decided" (The Shadow Lines 103). An aside to the Brick Lane and the lives of people there in the year 1940 follows, triggered by the sight of the house. The dimensions of the imaginary 1940 and the actual present 1979 are juxtaposed in the narration. At the same time, Brick Lane is presented both as the Jewish area of the War period and as the Indian area of the 70s.
The narrator clearly prefers his imaginary past London to the actual present one. Through this preference, the imaginary past comes to coincide with Jameson‘s ―essence‖, the primary contents of his consciousness, or ―the structural model of the conditions of existence‖ of the actual present. The actual present experience through sense-perception is Jameson‘s ―appearance‖, which in the context of the narrator serves mainly to trigger the ―essence‖, the imaginary past. Consequently, the Solent Road, the Taj Travel Agency, or the room in Mrs Price‘s house of the 1970s (―appearance‖, immediate lived experience) bring forth the ―structural model‖ of realizing them, which is the imaginary London of 1939 (―essence‖, the structural model of the existence of lived experience). As with Jameson‘s theory, the social and cultural forms governing these two types of experiences do not coincide, but conflict at the levels of time, place and the nature of reality (imaginary constructions vs. actual sense-perception).
Jameson‘s account of urban experience is reminiscent of the
narrator‘s experience of London:
[The] conception of city experience - its dialectic between the here and now of immediate perception and the imaginative or imaginary sense of the city as an absent totality - presents something like a spatial analogue of Althusser‘s great formulation of ideology itself, as ―the Imaginary representation of the subject‘s relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence.‖ (Jameson 1991, 415) The narrator also uses London for a very specific kind of "spatial analogue", to borrow Jameson‘s phrase. He counts the miles he wanders in the streets of London towards Stockwell to see Ila, with whom he has fallen in love. As he is incapable of finding a linguistic metaphor for the state of love ("And yet between that and its metaphors there is no more connection than there is between a word, such as mat, and the thing itself" (96)), he resorts to a spatial one. The route he has taken through London and the miles he has walked function as a metaphor for his love for Ila.
The placing of the imaginary before the actual indicates that the narrator has primarily an imaginary identification with London. In line with Althusser‘s characterization of ideology, he has created an imaginary relationship to the real existing London.
It is just that this representation is temporarily quite far apart from the real conditions of existence. As stated, Jameson links the phenomenon of a growing contradiction between lived experience and the socio-cultural conditions for the existence of this experience with colonialism and the physical and cultural movements caused by it. He also argues that new poetic
strategies will spring from this contradictory experience:
There comes into being, then, a situation in which we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be true; and that if a scientific or cognitive model of the same content is true, then it escapes individual experience.
It is evident that this new situation poses tremendous and crippling problems for a work of art; and I have argued that it is as an attempt to square this circle and to invent new and elaborate formal strategies for overcoming this dilemma that modernism or, perhaps better, the various modernisms as such emerge: in forms that inscribe a new sense of the absent global colonial system on the very syntax of poetic language itself, a new play of absence and presence that at its most simplified will be haunted by the exotic and be tattooed with foreign place names, and at its most intense will involve the invention of remarkable new languages and forms. (Jameson 1991, 411) As the narrator acknowledges, he has created his own secret map of the world, ―a map of which only I knew the keys and coordinates, but which was not for that reason any more imaginary than the code of a safe is to a banker‖ (The Shadow Lines 196). This map of the world is one response to Radhakrishnan‘s call for postmodern spaces that are imagined "in excess of and in advance of […] actual history in the name of experiences that are real but lacking in legitimacy" (2003, 61). The representation of London in the novel consists of several levels: the past is represented through an amalgamation of official history and personal imagination, and the present through maps and eyesight. Radhakrishnan continues: "each of these […] realities must imagine its own discursive-epistemic space as a form of openness to one another‘s persuasion" (2003, 61). What has to be avoided is the situation where one version speaks for all, or where all the versions are "islands unto themselves" (2003, 61). I would say that the novel as a whole forms a space in which all the abovementioned spatial representations of London are given room without vindicating or prioritising any of them. The swift and fluent switches between different times and representations in the narrative underline the impression that these various representations are dissolving into each other and, as a result, producing a whole which retains the specifics of each of its components. In other words, a whole within which the various spatial representations do not exist as "islands unto themselves", but rather are open to one another‘s persuasion. In relation to history, the novel further provides an example of holding "history, the discipline, and other forms of memory together so that they can help in the interrogation of each other, to work out the ways these immiscible forms of recalling the past are juxtaposed" (Chakrabarty 2000, 93-94).
The merging of various spatial and temporal dimensions into a heterogeneous whole is at its most obvious in the scene where, shortly after Ila‘s marriage to Nick Price, the narrator and Ila go down to the cellar of Mrs Price‘s house in London, where Ila tells him that Nick has been unfaithful to her. It is the same cellar in which Tridib sat during the war in the event of air raids, the same place Ila had drawn in the dust under the large table in Raibajar long ago, and the place where Ila had recently realized that the narrator was in love with her. Sitting on a camp bed beside the weeping Ila, the narrator contemplates the
miscellaneous stuff in the cellar:
Slowly, as I looked around me, those scattered objects seemed to lose their definition in the harsh, flat light of the
naked bulb; one of their dimensions seemed to dissolve: