Exploring post-colonial travel writing

(Encounters ) Levi-Strauss, in his classic work, ‘Tristes Tropique’, laments the disappearance of adventurous travel, and with it invigorating travel writing, as a consequence of the impact of modernization, industrialization, globalization. Indeed, this sentiment is consonant with the theme of loss that activates the book.

However, despite Levi-Strauss’ pessimism, travel writing far from being marginalized, has emerged with a renewed vigour and intensity. A plurality of factors has contributed to this enthusiasm. First, globalization and its impact has become an attractive theme for travel writers. Second, the rise of post-colonial theory and post-colonial studies, along with the re-imagining of cultural encounters that it has promoted, have given a new impetus to the investigation of travel literature in relation to questions of power.

As a student of literature and literary theory, an important facet of travel writing that I find most challenging is the complex ways in which narrative and discursive authority is acquired by the writers. It seems to me that this aspect opens up an interesting window into the textual economies and rhetorical strategies fuelling travel literature.

The concept of narrative authority in travel literature occupies a contested theoretical space. It is many-sided and raises issues of great complexity related to textuality, representation, sign, desire, power, cultural intervention and modes of sense-making. For purposes of analysis, I wish to focus on ten important questions. First, how is the self of the narrator constructed and represented in the test? What are the processes of self-making, self-unmaking, self-remaking involved? Second, how does the notion of witnessing, a opposed to seeing, operate in the text and invest it with a sense of legitimacy? How do the powers of direct encounter and the capacity for reflection enhance this phenomenon of witnessing? Third, what are the textual strategies adopted by the narrator for the purchase of authority that in the ultimate analysis has to be understood as a linguistic and rhetorical effect.

Four, how is a privileged position of knowingness constructed for the narrator? And how does he or she interiorize what is external? Fifth, what are the defining features of the subject of articulation? How do they influence the complex relationship between the observing subject and the observed object? Sixth, how are readers produced by and in travel texts? How does the narrative authority forge a community of readers? Seven, how does the travel writer cope with cultural differences and issues of otherness? How do powers of cultural translation and intervention influence this effort? Eight, how do questions of identity, imagination, reflexivity, irony, self-mockery shape travel texts and their poetics? What are the sense-making modes and procedures pursued by the narrator? What models of understanding does he or she bring to the project of textual production/ tenth, is narrative authority and the privileged sense of coherence undercut at any point by the narrative itself? How do ambiguities and fissures in the text detract from the power of authority?

These are some of the questions that one has to keep in mind as one moves forward into the analysis of narrative authority in travel writing. Admittedly, some of them are highly abstract and exceedingly complex. My focus of interest is post-colonial travel writing. The very term post-colonial writing compels us to compare this body of writing with the corpus of colonial travel writing which preceded it, and against which it is presumed to react in different ways. Colonial travel literatures were inextricably linked with Orientalism as Edward Said defined it. Said remarked that, “everyone who writes about the orient must locate himself vis-a-vis the orient.” Clearly, colonial writers located themselves in a space suffused with superiority. It is evident that colonial travel writing operates firmly within the discursive matrix of Orientalism.

As commentators like Homi Bhabha have pointed out, the relationship between the Western narrator and his Other is characterized by a deep ambivalence “the Other is both an object of attraction and repulsion at the same time resulting in the simultaneous generation of narcissism and paranoia. What we find in colonial travel literature is a narrative authority acquired and established through the juxtaposition of a set of binaries” superior culture/ inferior culture, modernity/primitivism, enlightenment/darkness, scientific world view/ superstition. Post-colonial travel writings seek to unsettle these binaries.

We must, of curse, be on our guard against seeking to establish a simple contrast between colonial and post-colonial writing. Colonial travel is not monolithic any more than post-colonial travel writing is. There are obvious discrepancies within colonial travel writing as well. For example, Flaubert is generally regarded as a travel writer of distinction. However, critics have pointed out that that his texts have become a site of an ideological split. On the one hand, there is a desire to transcend the power relations of Orientalism through non-participation; on the other, the textual display of its impossibility.

Post-colonial travel writing extends, expands, subverts and repudiates colonial travel writing, and one arena in which this is clearly manifest is that of narrative authority. Let us consider the travel writings of Amitav Ghosh who enjoys a wide reputation as a novelist of the first importance. His books such as “In an Antique Land” and “Dancing in Cambodia,” At Large in Burma; testify to this fact. “In An Antique Land” published in 1992 is sub-titled, “history in the guise of a traveller’s tale.” This book represents the confluence of travel, archival investigation, anthropology and fictional recreation.

The author has a remarkable ability to lead the reader forward with an irresistible narrative flow. In this work, he discusses his field work in the Nile delta; in doing so, he comes across a historically significant connection between the Mediterranean, Middle East and India. This historical investigation combined with the author’s travels from India to Egypt” both Third World countries with a long history. In the Cairo archives, Ghosh uncovers a narrative of an Indian traveller to Aden; he is a business employee of a Jewish merchant living in Mangalore, India. As the author explores the developments of the twentieth century, he also succeeds in bringing out vividly the close contact that existed among Arabs, Jews, and Indians through instrumentalities of trade and travel. In this book, the way history and anthropology buttress the travel narrative constitutes its defining feature.

Our focus here is on the ways in which travel writers purchase a sense of narrative authority. There are three important ways, to my mind, through which the writer has acquired narrative authority. The first is through the encircling of cultural commonalities and shared social experiences of the observer and observed. Unlike in the colonial travel writing, where the observer defiantly occupies a privileged space, in this text no such asymmetrical relationship exists. For example, the narrator is described as a “student from India” a guest who had come to Egypt to do research. It was their duty to welcome me into their midst and make me feel at home because of the long traditions of friendship between Egypt and India.

“Our countries were poor, for they had been ransacked by imperialists, and now they were both trying in very similar ways to cope with poverty and all the other problems that had been bequeathed to them by their troubled histories.”

The second way in which Amitav Ghosh succeeds in securing narrative authority is through the purposive display of his sympathetic understanding of the language, the history, the culture and social structure of Egypt. Unlike colonial travel writers, and some post colonial writers as well, who possess little or no understanding of, and even less admiration for, the cultures they are writing about, Ghosh intimates to us his profound comprehension of the culture that he is dealing with.

Third, some of the rhetorical strategies and representational devices that Ghosh deploys enable him to invest his narrative voice with a greater sense of intimacy, cordiality, and authority. In the standard travel narratives as we have come to know them, there is a clear and unmistakable division between the observer and observed, the writer and the native informant. This is clearly not the case with Amitav Ghosh’s text; there is almost a role reversal and Ghosh becomes an informant and the observed, as for example when he ends up as the target of numerous queries regarding the Hindu culture by Egyptian interlocutors. At one point, he is forced to defend India against the charges of backwardness by pointing to its advances in military technology.

Amitav Ghosh’s, “In an Antique Land” presents us with some interesting textual strategies that enable him to retain a firm hold on his narrative authority. These devices and strategies are in sharp contrast to those deployed by colonial travel writers. His “Dancing Cambodia, At Large in Burma,” though a slighter work than the former, repays close reading. Once again Ghosh has succeeded in acquiring a sense of authority by reinforcing his sympathetic and intimate understanding of Cambodian history and culture.

Passages such as the following illustrate this point. “I heard one such from a Cambodian conservation worker called Kongsarith. One afternoon, he was telling me about some of the legends depicted in Angkor Wat’s magnificent bas-reliefs: the primal myth of churning the Sea of Milk: the legend of Vishnu in his tortoise-avatar: of the doomed Abhimanyu trapped in a battle formation that he had learned to enter but not escape: the death-god Yama ruling over his tormented shades. The stories were all familiar to me, of course, some in the misty way of tales told by a grandmother; others in the manner of texts learned under the threat of a tutor’s cane and quickly forgotten.”

As we sharpen our analytical interest in post-colonial writing, travel literature produced by post-colonial writers should stir our imaginations and promote close study. A number of Indian-born or Indian-linked writers such as V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Pico Iyer have authored travel narratives that are compellingly readable and offer useful points of contrast with colonial travel literatures.

Encounters – by Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

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