Author's Roundtable: Stefan Helgesson, “The Writing of Colonial Time”
Response by Dara Goldman

Monday, April 22, 2013

[On April 8, 2013 the Unit of Criticism and Interpretive Theory in collaboration with INSPIRE and the Trowbridge Office on American Literature, Culture, and Society held an Author’s Roundtable hosting Stefan Helgesson (Stockholm University) to discuss a chapter of his current book project on temporality and postcolonialism, with responses from Dara Goldman (Spanish, Italian & Portuguese, Latino/Latina Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, Director of Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies), Ken Salo (Urban and Regional Planning), and Matthew Nelson (Comparative & World Literature). Below is the second of the two blogs on the event and features Goldman’s response.]

Written by Dara Goldman (Spanish, Italian & Portuguese, Latino/Latina Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, Director of Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies)

Helgesson engages in a critical and highly productive analysis of the question of time—and narrative time in particular—in postcolonial studies and the humanities more broadly. As he asserts, the scholarly debate in postcolonial studies around these questions has tended to assert the difference of non-Western temporalities and assess this difference as either fundamentally positive or negative. In order to elucidate and begin to move beyond this binary, Helgesson turns to the analysis of literary texts. He cogently argues that literature has the capacity to encode, decode, and intervene in the articulation of temporal difference. Rather than simply recreate hegemonic modes, denounce their hegemony, or celebrate their alterity, these texts can offer a rich landscape of paradoxes, contradictions, displacements, dilatios, erasures and violences that emerge when a set of rhetorical temporal modes is mapped onto a lived historical experience of time and space.

I would like to offer a few comments or suggestions as to how this discussion might be developed or explored further. In particular, the specific examples Helgesson examines tend to emphasize or highlight the ability of literature to complicate questions of temporal difference. In their particular construction and deployment of their respective chronotopes, the narratives he analyzes interrogate questions of simultaneity and notions of progress. I would like to introduce two examples that I believe encode, instead, the very failure of the recuperative historical project and explore what they might add to the discussion of how literature and narrative might advance our thinking about temporal differences.

In his articulation of this temporal hermeneutics, Helgesson has given us a rich set of theoretical bibliography to work with—and I suspect that my colleagues may offer some additional tools—so I will refrain from expanding the corpus to extensively. I would like to mention, however, that work on temporality in gender and sexuality studies has made some highly compelling interventions about the underlying assumptions and interpellations that are often embedded in conceptualizations and representations of time. (See the work of Patricia Parker, Patricia Murphy, Jack Halberstam, and Lee Edelman.)

I also wanted to mention the role of positivism in Latin America. Nineteenth-century Latin American writers and intellectuals engaged with positivism, almost to the point of a fetishistic obsession. Both as a Latin American writer and through his military training, Euclides da Cunha would have had extensive contact with these discussions, and this contact undoubtedly influenced his thinking about time, temporal trajectories and their sociocultural implications.

Turning now to more recent work, there is an extensive (all too extensive, perhaps) critical and theoretical bibliography that deals with the writing of time and temporality in Latin America (Carlos Alonso, Néstor García Canclini, Roberto González Echevarria, Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, Julio Ramos, Silviano Santiago—just to name the ones that came to my mind most frequently as I read) The inclusion on any/all of these would undoubtedly enhance and deepen the theoretical argument.

I will leave those as a mere suggestion, however, and devote the rest of my time to comments that might be of greater interest and productivity for our collective discussion of narrative time. I would like to touch upon two literary examples that I hope, along with the readings offered by Helgesson, will help to think about the role of narrative in engagements with postcolonial temporalities and of the temporal hermeneutics his work proposes.

The first of these examples is The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier. In this 1953 novel, Carpentier charts the trajectory of a disillusioned composer who is charged with a mission to track the lost origins of music, a journey that leads him to travel to South America, into the jungle, and eventually to take up residence in an indigenous community he finds in the Northern Amazon. Lest you should have any doubt as to the relevance of this work to our discussion, the entry for the English translation summarizes the novel as follows: “A composer, fleeing an empty existence in New York City, takes a journey with his mistress to one of the few remaining areas of the world not yet touched by civilization-the upper reaches of a great South American river. The Lost Steps describes his search, his adventures, and the remarkable decision he makes in a village that seems to be truly outside history.”

This protagonist’s experiences involve a concatenation of adventures with precarious modes of transportation and unreliable infrastructure (the eruption of a local revolt and the loss of power at the hotel leads to an invasion of the building by all manner of insects and snakes) and a serial progression through various sexual partners who prove strangely elusive at the end of which he finds himself in the remote indigenous village that is—indeed—able to reveal the secret/lost origins of music. The newly inspired composer attempts to record his findings and produce a musical piece that showcases this newfound historical understanding, but he is frustrated by the lack of paper or writing implements and must attempt to record his notations on local leaves, animal skins, and other available materials. When the rains finally subside, he leaves the jungle to procure additional supplies. As he attempts to return to the village to complete his tasks, however, he finds he is unable to locate the path along the river that will take him to the village. He finally realizes (with the help of the local individual steering the boat) that the water level of the river has now risen significantly, and the markings on the trees he had been using to navigate are now completely submerged and invisible.

The Conradian “horror” of the epistemological impasse in this case stems from the moment of anagnorisis, the realization that any attempt to “discover” and “recover” the lost secrets of one’s past in this location is doomed to failure: in the end, this place requires an understanding and relationship with the cyclical temporalities of nature that he does not possess. More importantly, perhaps, the local residents have no investment or interest in the temporal reconstructions that casts them in a Fabianesque narrative of non-coevalness in which the remote village must play the role of a living diorama that conveniently performs a historical past that can be witnesses, accessed, and mined for its lost treasures in the present. Carpentier presents this story as a melancholic tale of insuperable loss and tragic hubris; in doing so, however, he also ultimately underscores how the particular landscape and subjects of the South American jungle compellingly resist being neatly inserted into the “northern visitor’s” history.

The other example I would like to present is not one from my own purported regional area of expertise, but one that can be compellingly read—against the grain—in terms of how narrative encodes issues, encounters, and disencounters of postcolonial temporality: the film Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). (The film is based on a novel published in 2004 that I have not read, so my comments refer to the film adaptation only.) The film offers the rather charming tale of a group of British retirees who travel to Jaipur, India in order to ameliorate the effects of personal/financial failures at home and gain access to a fresh start and a higher standard of living than they could afford in England.

View of Jaipur, India.
Of course, the conditions they encounter do not meet their expectations (is not “what they were sold”). It turns out that the proprietor, Sonny Kapoor (played by Dev Patel) has launched his new business venture—the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”—in an attempt to save his dead father’s beloved hotel from sale and probable destruction. Despite set-backs, disappointments and cultural conflicts, desires—amorous and financial—are ultimately fulfilled in the film. One retiree eventually abandons the enterprise (and her husband) to return to recently restored financial security back home. The rest settle in to life in Jaipur and become a resource that helps India negotiate its insertion into the global economy as a major competitor. One resident secures work as a “cultural consultant” at a local call center, helping the workers learn how to better engage in appropriate small talk and banter in order to gain the interest of their target consumers. Another resident agrees to take over as financial manager at the hotel in order to rescue Sonny from his apparently erstwhile disastrous mismanagement of the hotel’s books. Of course, the epitome of a good transcultural, capitalist love story, financial success is “coupled” with greater cross-cultural understanding and the resolution or rectification of past romantic/familial mis-steps: the mis-matched couple of retirees separates, freeing the husband to initiate a relationship with the more compatible fellow resident of the hotel, and Kapoor finally stands up to his mother, winning the opportunity to continue running the hotel and marry the woman he loves.

Perhaps most tellingly, Graham Dashwood is a gay man who had been plagued by the memory of how his first homosexual encounter led to the shaming and financial ruin of his lover and his family: when he lived in India years earlier as a young man, he had become involved with the son of the family who worked in domestic service for his family. When the relationship was discovered, the family was promptly dismissed and ejected from the household. Dashwood is able to locate his long-lost first love, and he finds that the man is happily married (to a woman who seems to know about and understand the affair), has had a good life, and remembers Graham fondly. Shortly after this reunion, which demonstrates that his desire to atone for past mistakes was apparently unnecessary, Dashwood peacefully slumps over and dies in a chair in the hotel’s main courtyard.

In this way, on several registers the film depicts (celebrates even) a naïve desire in which imperial/colonial subjects seek to recover and rewrite their own history through a return to the (former) site of conquest, colonization, and empire building. As with a “Generation of '98” writer in Spain, they seem to be earnestly and desperately seeking answers to the question of “where did it all go so wrong” and “how can we (re)set it right?”

I would like to suggest that both of these examples illustrate how narrative can encode the aporia Helgesson examines in highly suggestive and productively destabilizing ways; on the level of plot, the literary archive of temporal inscriptions may often point towards facile and/or reductionists ways of resolving, suturing, or “filling in” those aporias. Nonetheless, Helgesson’s argument compellingly point toward how this archive can be mined in the service of a postcolonial rethinking of transcultural time in/across/beyond the so-called Global South. The work of writers such as Euclides da Cunha, Olive Schreiner, and Thomas Mofolo offer complex negotiations of temporality that both reflect and challenge established understandings of progress, failure, nostalgia, and utopia. At the same time, works such as the ones I have presented here can be juxtaposed with Helgesson’s examples in order to illustrate how narratives can seek to resolve and reduce—as well as to exacerbate—the complexities of temporal differences.


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