This book is rather more than the introductory survey that its title and format might suggest. It is also a sustained, intelligent and refreshingly sceptical discussion about what constitutes the focus of postcolonial literary studies. The question needs to be raised if only to allay suspicions that "postcolonial" is merely the latest in a line of vast unthinking categories invented by the academy to signify the otherness of the literature concerned. Is the writing of an Australian aboriginal like Mudrooroo, a Canadian metropolitan like Margaret Atwood or an internationally acclaimed African like Wole Soyinka marked by so strong an affinity as to outweigh regional, cultural, social or linguistic differences?
For Elleke Boehmer, herself an accomplished novelist and, as a white South African, ambiguously postcolonial, the answer seems to be a carefully nuanced "no". She does however persuasively argue for the existence of a connective tissue that in one important respect links all these writers. This is perhaps encapsulated in her subtitle. There is, of course, nothing original in the idea of metaphor as a means of apprehending or even appropriating the culturally unfamiliar. Nor is this metaphorical understanding, derived from the writer's own cultural subjectivities, unique to the colonial encounter: one has only to think of the historical novel. What is of more interest here is Boehmer's account of the capacity of writers to transcend historically determined limitations through the craft of writing itself.
One of her central points is the use made by colonised writers of European modernism. Both Kamau Braithwaite and Derek Walcott, for example, acknowledge the influence of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", with its disruptive clash of narrative voices. The contrasting registers of Caribbean creoles and standard English in Walcott's poems, his appropriation of myth in "Omeros", celebrate a new hybridised identity forged out of the migrant experience. W. B. Yeats's notions of cultural retrieval through mythical allusion were also an influence on writers like Achebe or Soyinka.
Such reciprocities were not wholly, in Boehmer's view, a matter of imitation or mimicry, but a realisation of the possibility of voicing the fragmented, hybridised and uprooted condition of the colonised individual. This uneasy relationship between the metropolitan centre and the colonial periphery is expressed in varying degrees of intensity amongst most of the writers who form the subject of this study.
The final chapter of the book considers the impact of diasporic writing and the resultant cosmopolitan nature of contemporary literature in English. Boehmer observes that: "The status of migrant writers . . . has produced definitions of postcolonial literature as almost necessarily cosmopolitan, transplanted, multilingual and conversant with the cultural codes of the West." She goes on to suggest that this situation creates the misapprehension that other cultures can be fully intelligible when mediated through a predominantly western understanding. She even detects an incipient bifurcation of the subject with the diasporic writer as the focus of attention for the postcolonial critic and a return to national or regional based specialisms.
The fact that this book is the first general survey of the subject to be written by a single critic may occasion surprise. Yet the reason for this comparatively late debut is undoubtedly the immensity and diffuseness of the subject matter, even though this book restricts itself to anglophone writing in the British empire and the Commonwealth. By providing a chronological appendix of notable authors and publications, the author avoids what could have been a mere inventory. She limits her discussion to the salient questions that surround writing about or against empire. This is not to suggest that the writing itself is subordinated to theoretical speculation, but that a manageable number of writers are introduced to illustrate the possibilities of reciprocal understanding or misreading between hitherto distantly situated cultures.
Boehmer has many sensible things to say about the irretrievability of much indigenous culture in a world increasingly dominated by multinational conglomerates and global communication networks. The increasing immiseration of third-world nations and accompanying government corruption has given rise to a new generation of resistance writing. Reading these thoughts in a week dominated by the barbarous execution of the Nigerian writer, Ken Saro Wiwa, gaves them an added urgency.
This is an excellent introduction to an admittedly unwieldy subject. One or two authorial lapses perhaps illustrate the continuing need that she identifies for detailed study of regional literatures. Bishnu De, for example cannot be accurately described as a "Bengali poet in English", since he wrote primarily in his mother tongue and Raja Rao was assuredly not "one of the first Indian novelists to write in English".
Ronald Warwick was literature officer, Commonwealth Institute, and is now teaching a course on postcolonial literature in London.
Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors
Author - Elleke Boehmer
ISBN - 0 19 289232 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £7.99
Pages - 304