Postcolonial Text / Author

Resistance and Representation:
Postcolonial Fictions of Nations in Crisis

Nagesh Rao, Wake Forest University


This article examines the representation of resistance in two recent novels, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1996) and Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage (1991), in order to suggest some of the challenges that these novels pose to current trends in postcolonial studies. The two novels differ significantly from each other, in that A Fine Balance positions itself within the tradition of the classical realist novel, while Redundancy possesses many of the markers of a postmodern text. The former has been widely hailed as  “monumental,” “[a] work of genius,” and “the product of high intelligence and passionate conviction.”[1] After being featured on Oprah Winfrey’s Book of the Month Club, A Fine Balance found a ready audience outside the academy as well. On the other hand, The Redundancy of Courage was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991, but was out of print a few years later, and has recently been re-published under the imprint of Paddleless Press, the author’s own publishing venture. A search on most databases yields a mere handful of articles, mostly reviews, and only one full-length book on Mo’s fiction.

Despite these differences, the two novels are similar in that they are both depictions of nations in crisis. A Fine Balance, set in India during the period of the State of Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, plays out the crisis of the nation as the lived experience of its characters. In The Redundancy of Courage, the crisis is that of a nation under neocolonial oppression: the crisis of a nation without its own state. In both instances, the dialectic of repression and resistance shapes the world of the novel.

How then are we to account for the popularity of A Fine Balance and the relative obscurity of Redundancy? In what follows, I argue that the answer is to be found in the novels’ respective representations of resistance. More specifically, the two novels differ in their representation of subaltern agency. The narrative of repression and victimization to be found in Mistry’s novel, I argue, brings it into concordance with that most potent of nationalist myths: the powerlessness of the oppressed classes. On the other hand, Mo’s treatment of resistance and national liberation shatters this myth, and confers upon the subaltern classes an agency that A Fine Balance is unable to envision. Despite the radical thrust of postcolonial criticism, in other words, a text that reifies oppression has achieved greater visibility and recognition than one that resists such reification.

Finally, I will relate this analysis to some broader theoretical concerns of postcolonial studies. My reading of Mistry’s realist novel shows that the search for an “authentic” subaltern voice, which postcolonial theorists have often cautioned against, is fraught with contradictions. However, Mistry’s realist representation of the poor and the oppressed does not erase subaltern agency as much as it reduces it to the level of a micro-politics that sits easily with much of postcolonial theory. On the other hand, Timothy Mo’s novel seems at first sight to bear all the trappings of postcolonialist discourse, with its use of a multiply-determined narrator whose chief characteristic is his marginality. Nevertheless, I argue that the novel resists incorporation into a postcolonial problematic because of its affirmative vision of national liberation.

The Novel and Nations in Crisis

Influenced by deconstruction, poststructuralism, and other text-based literary theories, critics initially sought to draw attention to postcolonial literature as resistance. Thus, the authors of The Empire Writes Back argued against the cultural hegemony of the canon of English literature, against “employing Eurocentric standards of judgment [by which] the centre has sought to claim those works and writers of which it approves as British” (7). Instead, they proposed a distinction between “English” and “english,” the latter signifying the resistant thrust of “the energies uncovered by the political tension between the idea of a normative code and a variety of regional usages” (8). On this account, postcolonial literary texts are resistant to the extent that they succeed in subverting the “normative codes” of European canonical traditions.

A different approach to resistance and literature is manifested in the body of work produced by Marxist scholars like Barbara Harlow, Neil Lazarus, John Beverly and Marc Zimmerman. Their focus was less on literature as resistance and more on the literature of resistance. Harlow’s Resistance Literature, Lazarus’s Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction and Beverly and Zimmerman’s Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions, although widely divergent in their political and theoretical arguments, shared at least one feature in common. Resistance in each of these instances was not seen as a characteristic of postcolonial textuality; rather, the task of the critic was to uncover the manner in which social and political resistance in the real world comes to be represented by the literary text, and consequently, to re-locate the text within its historical and ideological context.

If the postcolonial novel is to be seen as a site of resistance (in its ideological positioning within cultural institutions), its material referent and its condition of production is the postcolonial nation. Yet, the (postcolonial) nation is neither unitary nor homogenous, but is actually the stage on which the social contradictions of class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and language are played out. Analogously, the world of the postcolonial novel is itself a radically fractured space, where different social groups contend for power and control, both of their world and of the narrative itself. Postcolonial novels thus often highlight the contradictions inherent in the national imaginary.

In his essay “The National Longing for Form” Timothy Brennan draws attention to what he calls the “nation-centeredness of the postcolonial world” (47). Referencing Benedict Anderson’s work on nationalism, Brennan points out that the novel arose alongside the newspaper as the cultural product of the modern nation, and that it played a key role in creating the conceptual space of the nation:

It was the novel that historically accompanied the rise of nations by objectifying the “one, yet many” of national life, and by mimicking the structure of the nation, a clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles. Socially, the novel joined the newspaper as the major vehicle of the national print media, helping to standardize language, encourage literacy, and remove mutual incomprehensibility. But it did much more than that. Its manner of presentation allowed people to imagine the special community that was the nation. (49)

Specifically, it was the novel’s ability to create a world that “allowed for multitudinous actions occurring simultaneously within a single, definable community, filled with ‘calendrical coincidences’ [the phrase is Anderson’s]” (52), that helped it play this role. This ability to allow for calendrical coincidences within a single community that was radically divided along lines of class, race, and gender, meant that novelistic realism had to be different from earlier forms of realism. As Brennan argues,

The composite quality of the novel cannot be understood only ethnically or regionally. The novel’s rise accompanied a changing concept of realism itself, which acquired its present association with the lower classes only after the Enlightenment when, as Auerbach describes, realism came to involve: ‘the serious treatment of everyday reality, the rise of more extensive and socially inferior human groups to the position of subject matter for problematic-existential representation.’ In other words, the novel brought together ‘high’ and ‘low’ within a national framework — not fortuitously, but for specific national reasons. (52)

We might add that whether this bringing together of the “high” and “low” serves the purpose of popular mobilization, leading to the assertion of a liberating nationalism, or that of containment — subsuming subaltern voices and energies within an elite discourse — depends on each novel’s specific ideological positioning. Many postcolonial novels set out to problematize rather than legitimize the nation. In such novels as Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines and Salman Rushdie’s Shame, to name just a few, we see the authors foregrounding the problems involved in “bringing together the ‘high’ and ‘low’ within a national framework.” The postcolonial novel differs, therefore, in some significant ways from the classic bourgeois realist novel of European pedigree. Furthermore, the “treatment of everyday reality” is mediated by various ideological and political factors. For this reason, the search for “authenticity” in representation — if by authenticity we mean a self-same identity — is doomed to failure.

As Ranajit Guha argued in his programmatic essay on Indian historiography, and as the early work of the Subaltern Studies Collective showed, mainstream historiography tended to represent the process of decolonization as an elite achievement. In response to this, the project of the Subaltern Studies group was to recuperate the history of subaltern struggles against colonial and class exploitation. This recuperation, however, is not easily accomplished, for the historical archive itself consists mainly of documents produced by the colonial and national elites. Like history and critical theory, literary texts are also inscribed within ideological frameworks that they have inherited. Consequently, their representation of subaltern agency can yield insights into their governing ideologies.

The problem here is that of representation itself. If re-presentation in the aesthetic sense is also necessarily a form of representation in the political sense, then how can we distinguish between representations that are enabling and empowering and those that are not? Given its affinity with poststructuralism and postmodernism, postcolonial theory has tended to reject the classic realist text, elevating instead the “magic realism” of writers such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As Laura Moss has argued, for postcolonialists, “Magic realism opens up a space for the political to enter the text precisely because it is not realism here, while realism without magic is taken to be less capable of opposition” (159). Furthermore, postcolonial critics have tended to expect realist texts to reinforce “conservative, specifically imperialist, ideology” (158).

The anti-realist stance of postcolonial literary criticism finds its echo in postcolonial political theory as well. Against the certainties of a now-discredited nationalism, postcolonialism privileges the radical uncertainties and ambivalences of the margin. As Homi Bhabha puts it in The Location of Culture, “I want to take my stand on the shifting margins of cultural displacement — that confounds any profound or ‘authentic’ sense of a ‘national’ culture or ‘organic’ intellectual …” (21). The postcolonial is seen here as enabled by its location within “shifting margins of cultural displacement.” The subject position privileged in this discourse is that of the diasporic intellectual, whose vantage point derives from his or her ability to comfortably stand astride the gap between East and West.

Elsewhere, however, Bhabha seems to extend this conception of the privileged vantage point of the intellectual to a more generalized theory of marginality that has become symptomatic of postcolonial theory:

America leads to Africa; the nations of Europe and Asia meet in Australia; the margins of the nation displace the center; the people of the periphery return to rewrite the history and fiction of the metropolis…. The bastion of Englishness crumbles at the sight of immigrants and factory workers…. ‘Magical realism’ after the Latin American Boom, becomes the literary language of the emergent post-colonial world. (“Introduction” 6-7)

The slippage between the literary/discursive (magic realism’s challenge to canonical conventions) and the real world here is problematic. It is hardly necessary to point out, for instance, that “the sight of immigrants and factory workers” more often than not results in a further strengthening of hegemonic nationalism, and becomes the pretext for a further strengthening of the repressive powers of the nation-state. Furthermore, we might ask, who are the “people of the periphery” who “rewrite the history and fiction of the metropolis”? Are they same as those “immigrants and factory workers”? While we are trained to think of the diasporic subject through the lens of an intellectual discourse, it is important to remember that for large numbers of diasporic subjects, the lived experience of dislocation, immigration, and exile, far from being enabling, is in fact a profoundly alienating and traumatic experience. This alienation is poignantly depicted, for instance, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “Mrs. Sen’s House,” in which the simple act of learning to drive a car in a foreign land takes on the proportions of an existential dilemma for the uprooted individual.

Alienation, however, is not a characteristic of the diasporic subject alone. Inequality and disenfranchisement — related to class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, for instance — inevitably produce alienated and marginalized individuals. This “normal” state of things is exacerbated during periods of acute national crises, when the struggle between marginalized and dominant groups in society is thrown into relief. To what extent do displacement and marginality — the tropes valorized and favored by postcolonial theorists — function at such moments as markers of resistance?

In the analysis that follows, I want to argue that the representation of displacement and marginality in A Fine Balance and The Redundancy of Courage bears little resemblance to the preoccupations of postcolonial theorists. Mistry’s novel focuses our attention on the dynamics of internal displacements and dislocations — of class, gender, caste, and locality within the nation — that are in turn overdetermined by the brutality of the nation-state at its most repressive. Far from viewing displacement and marginality as subject-positions that enable resistance, such that “the margins of the nation displace the center,” here marginality and resistance emerge as mutually exclusive terms. Thus despite its devastating critique of the nation, A Fine Balance reifies oppression and therefore presents a static view of a postcolonial society.

In sharp contrast to Mistry’s novel, Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage succeeds in representing resistance through its use of a marginalized, multiply-determined diasporic character. However, it is not the act of resistance that is enabled by the central character’s diasporic identity; rather, it is the narration of this resistance. Mo’s novel subverts and undermines the notion of identity-as-resistance, and refigures identity as being shaped and reshaped by social and historical forces. Subaltern agency emerges out of the actually existing conditions on the ground, as it were, rather than from one’s identity-as-performance. Furthermore, the novel considers the national dimension of liberation as a consequence of the contingencies of anti-colonial struggle, and not of a prior commitment to the nation-form. In this arena the “national” becomes a name not for an ethnic chauvinism, but for its opposite: a solidarity with others involved in the same struggle.

“A fine balance between hope and despair”

Indira Gandhi’s imposition of a State of Emergency in 1975 was a turning point in Indian politics. One account of those years tells us that “[e]conomic recession, unemployment, price rise and scarcity of goods led to large-scale industrial unrest and a wave of strikes … during 1972 and 1973, culminating in an all-India railway strike in May 1974” (Chandra et al 247). The trauma associated with the eighteen-month imposition of martial law is exceeded in the Indian post-independence imaginary perhaps only by the violence of the communal riots that followed partition in 1947. Martial law was enforced, civil rights revoked, and the mass of the population, particularly the working classes and the rural poor terrorized by state repression. Women and men alike were dragged off to temporary clinics for forced sterilization, strikes and demonstrations were banned, and hundreds of trade unionists, activists, and radicals were jailed. The period also witnessed the Gandhi regime’s perverse use of a populist slogan of garibi hatao (abolish poverty) to secure its legitimacy. The Emergency, however, also had its opponents. Despite the active compliance of some sections of the organized Left (such as the Communist Party of India) and the wait-and-see attitude of others (such as the Communist Party of India-Marxist), organized resistance during the Emergency years was not absent. Leadership of this resistance devolved to a former Congress Party member, J. P. Narayan, who organized mass protests, sit-ins and strikes (Chandra et al 246-60).

In Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, whose main action takes place during the months of the Emergency, we find a radical rejection of the cosmopolitanism that marks a novel like Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines.[2] Set in an unnamed city in India (presumably Bombay), A Fine Balance is a harshly realistic novel. Told almost entirely from the point of view of subaltern and petty-bourgeois characters, the novel is firmly grounded, both in its narrative voice and in its sense of time and place, as it grimly captures the despair of these classes during this period of almost-total devastation. But out of this despair comes the attempt to form human connections in an inhuman world. The four key characters, who are initially strangers to one another, are thrown together by the force of circumstance and necessity. The novel traces their struggles to survive; the emergence, for an agonizingly brief period, of a sense of community amongst them; and the eventual destruction of this community in the face of the brutality of larger social forces. The power of A Fine Balance comes from its ability to weave together the varied histories of its characters, and in its creation of a tapestry of almost five decades of Indian history.

It is tempting to see A Fine Balance as the quintessential subaltern novel. It takes as its subject some of the most downtrodden, oppressed and exploited people in Indian society. Thus the two tailors, Omprakash and Ishvar Darji are dalits of the chamaar (tanner) caste who have fled the caste oppression of their village. Dina Dalal, whose brother is a businessman, is their employer, but she herself is struggling to preserve her “fragile independence,” hoping to climb into the ranks of the middle class (11). Maneck Kohlah, a student, comes from a well-to-do family but shares the alienation of the other characters in the novel. The most tragic and poignant moments in the novel are those that deal with the plight of a limbless beggar, Shankar, one of hundreds under the supervision of the Beggarmaster who “owns” them. Through these characters, Mistry presents us with a snapshot of a nation in crisis.

What unites the different characters in the novel is not only their oppression, but their geographical and cultural displacement. Omprakash and Ishvar come to represent the thousands of internally displaced dalits who flee their villages in search of a better life in the cities, only to live out their lives in the wretchedness of urban slums and the forced labor camps of Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao campaign. Maneck Kohlah, on the other hand, seems to stand in for the classic rural/urban dichotomy, here rewritten as the relationship between the small businesses of the hill stations and the corporate capitalism of the cities in the plains. Shankar’s very identity is fused with the wheeled platform that he uses to move around. Amidst these migrant and dislocated characters, the one steady presence is that of Dina Dalal’s home, which functions as a point of reference, or a center, that is constantly in danger of falling apart.

We see a close relationship between the characters and their immediate physical environment. Ishvar’s father, Dukhi, having worked with dead animals all his life, finds that

his own skin became impregnated with the odor that was part of his father’s smell, the leather-worker’s stink that would not depart even after he had washed and scrubbed in the all-cleansing river. ... He wondered if flaying would get rid of it. Or did it go deeper than skin? He pricked himself to smell his blood but the test was inconclusive. ... And what about muscle and bone, did the stink lurk in them too? (95-6)

The novel’s careful attention to detail, its sensual concreteness allows insignificant objects to acquire a density of meaning. One such example is Dina’s rent collector’s plastic folder:

The folder handed down almost half a century ago by the retiring rent-collector had not been of plastic, but rudely fashioned out of two wooden boards bound by a strip of morocco. It had carried with it the previous owner’s smell. A fraying cotton tape, sewn to the leather, went around to secure the contents. The dark, cracked boards had warped badly; when opened, they creaked and released a sweaty tobacco odor. (87)

The smells, colors, and textures of objects come to stand in for the monotonous stagnation of people’s lives.

The sense of despair and hopelessness, the brooding pessimism, and the wretchedness of life under stifling oppression are reminiscent of Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1968 novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Unlike the densely structured allegory and symbolism of Armah’s novel, however, in A Fine Balance we have a harsh realism that allows little room for symbol or allegory. Perhaps the only obviously symbolic device in the novel is Dina’s patchwork quilt that represents the possibility of community. Furthermore, whereas Armah’s novel presents us with a dialectical relationship between an “affirmative vision and [a] degraded reality” (Lazarus 46), there is little to celebrate or look forward to in the world inhabited by Mistry’s characters — the beautiful ones, as it were, are still-born, or born with grotesque deformities. Moreover, Beautyful Ones is suffused with a sense of the political, which becomes most visible during the extended reflection on Ghanaian politics in its sixth chapter. Mistry’s novel is equally political — in the sense that it deals with the effects of oppression and exploitation — but it contains little of the discourse of politics that we see in Beautyful Ones.

The novel doesn’t lack a consciousness of subaltern resistance; indeed, examples of resistance are everywhere to be seen. Thus Roopa’s midnight forays to steal fruit and milk from upper-caste homes and lands offer us a glimmer of the kind of courage that the daily ordeal of survival required in caste-dominated villages. But before long she is made to pay for her actions by having to prostitute herself to the man guarding an orange grove. Similarly, Dukhi defies prevailing caste restrictions by sending his sons off to the city to become tailors. One of them, Narayan, returns to the village and is able for a while to better the lives of his family. At election time, he insists on registering his vote, against the interests of the local leader, Thakur Dharamsi, whose rigging of the ballot goes unquestioned by everyone else. In retaliation for Narayan’s insubordination, the thakur has him killed and Narayan’s entire family burned to death. Thus Narayan’s one political act of defiance leads to his premature death.

On the other hand we have the hilariously caricatured Mrs. Gupta, owner of Au Revoir Exports and Dina’s employer, who expresses delight at the Emergency and then dutifully parrots the Prime Minister’s slogans: “The Need of the Hour is Discipline” and “Indiscipline is the mother of chaos, but the fruits of discipline are sweet.” Neither the lower nor the middle classes have more than a superficial understanding of the politics of the Emergency, although the middle-classes seem to sense their class interests in supporting it.

Thus, the characters in A Fine Balance move about not so much oblivious of politics but quite unable to think politically. From the forced labor camps to the sterilization programs we see the effects of the Emergency on ordinary people, but the main characters in the novel are quite unable to make sense of the political decisions responsible for their condition. Dina, while traveling around the city in its double-decker buses, sometimes has “a good view of the tumultuous crowds” protesting against the Emergency (66-7). But when Omprakash asks her about the Emergency, she responds: “Government problems — games played by people in power. It doesn’t affect ordinary people like us” (75). As readers, of course, we know that it does, as when Ishvar and Om, for instance, find themselves bused off to one of the Prime Minister’s rallies, having been bribed into going by the offer of a few rupees and a glass of tea; once they get there, they are cheated of the rewards they were promised. Later, Omprakash becomes a victim of one of the sterilization campaigns, and is forced to undergo a vasectomy. The combination of a brutally repressive state, crushing poverty, and caste oppression overwhelm any such individual act of resistance or subversion. In other words, resistance in this novel is personalized, individualized, and therefore necessarily short-lived and ultimately doomed to failure. Opposition here gets reified into a sort of micro-resistance, with organized politics and collective action as something one only hears about in terms that evoke images of unruly mobs.

The key to the novel’s popularity, I believe, is precisely its realism. Laura Moss, for instance, tells us that the novel has been readily appropriated by conservative Western critics. She rightly points to the fact that “The publicists of the American edition of A Fine Balance foreground the universal humanist elements of the novel … in order to decontextualize, dehistoricize and ultimately depoliticize the realism in the novel and thus ostensibly make it more palatable for a general American public” (163). But Moss goes on to insist that the novel resists  such appropriation, and that, contrary to the expectations of postcolonial critics, this resistance is a function of its realism. For Moss, “Mistry’s novel resists on every page,” but because this “resistance comes in the form of realism [it] is often ignored as a focus of the text” (158).

However, Moss’s argument is problematic in that it equates the portrayal of oppression as itself an act of resistance, so that agency counts for little in her assessment. For instance, she acknowledges that “Mistry disempowers his characters after placing them in the putatively interstitial space of Dina’s apartment,” but passes over the significance of this disempowerment in silence (160). Similarly, she shows us that “Mistry can be accused of being overly romantic in his portrait of poverty,” and then offers up what amounts to an apologia for this (161). But isn’t this exactly what permits, for instance, Darold Morgan, a reviewer for the conservative journal Christian Ethics Today to suggest that “reading this novel will assist the perceptive Christian who is aware that the missionary imperative is now on our doorstep”?

Indeed, Mistry’s realism is connected to his romantic portrayal of poverty and his disempowering of his characters. Bereft of any sense of political agency, the downtrodden characters are left with little more than the words (from which the novel derives its title) of the proofreader Vasantrao Valmik: “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair” (228-9). This refusal of agency is not necessarily at odds with much of postcolonial theory itself. As Benita Parry remarks in her critique of Bhabha and Spivak, “in place of recalcitrance and refusal enacted in movements of resistance and articulated in oppositional discourses, a tale is told of the self-consolidating other and the disarticulated subaltern” (36). A Fine Balance tells precisely such a tale, and is therefore easily incorporated into the dominant discourses of our time.

The epigraph that opens the novel is from the French novelist Honoré de Balzac:

Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.

In the context of a novel like A Fine Balance, we can see that this appeal to realism and to representational “truth” is predicated on an authorial desire for objectivity in the narration, such that the novel presents itself as an “authentic” representation of the oppression and victimization of the subaltern.

This is not to suggest, however, that the realist novel is necessarily conservative, or that realism inevitably erases resistance. Indeed, one can point to a fairly substantial number of realist and historical postcolonial novels that succeed in depicting subaltern agency while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of “authenticity.” I’m thinking here of such diverse texts as Sembene Ousmane’s Gods Bits of Wood, A. Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies, Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, Mochtar Lubis’s Twilight in Djakarta and Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru novels: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass.

I suggested earlier that it is tempting to see A Fine Balance as the quintessential subaltern novel. However, this seems to be true if one is only examining the identity of its main characters; once we move to a consideration of the novel’s ideological positioning, its political point of view, things become somewhat cloudy. While the most obvious accomplishment of the novel is its realistic portrayal of the brutalities of lives lived in stifling poverty, it achieves this effect primarily by keeping any form of organized resistance on the part of the lower classes out of its ambit. As Pierre Macherey has argued, a novel’s “point of view is determined rather by what it conceals than by what it reveals” (114). In A Fine Balance it is the element of subaltern activity, of political agency, that is constantly kept at bay. The murdered student revolutionary, the numerous anti-government protests that are mentioned in passing and the occasional newspaper articles about “troublemakers and strikers” alert us to the presence of organized resistance. This resistance, however, hovers phantom-like in the background, unseen and unheard throughout the novel. A Fine Balance thus accomplishes the task of evoking the readers’ sympathy, but it remains fundamentally blind to the possibility of the agency of the subaltern classes.

“I do not want them to be forgotten”:
Irony in The Redundancy of Courage

Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage stands in sharp contrast to Mistry’s novel, both in its narrative strategy and in its political effects. Redundancy seems, at one level, to be the ideal “postcolonial” text. Its representation of a fragmented, multiply-determined subject; its valorization of the standpoint of a diasporic consciousness; its destabilizing of narrative truth through the use of irony; all these would seem to confirm ideas and themes that have come to be taken as axiomatic by postcolonial theory. Nevertheless, the novel has been all but ignored by the field. I suggest that the novel resists incorporation into a postcolonial problematic for two reasons. The first is its firm sense of political commitment to national liberation. Secondly, it posits racial/ethnic identity not as a site of resistance but as itself shaped and determined in the context of collective struggle. Furthermore, I will show how The Redundancy of Courage — as a novel that sought to recuperate a forgotten history, but that is itself today a forgotten, unread text — raises important questions about national liberation and commitment in the post-independence period. After a brief discussion of the novel itself, I will turn once again to the political and ideological context of its publication to point to some of the lessons this novel holds for those of us working in the field of postcolonial studies.

Published in 1991, Redundancy is to my knowledge the only novel in English that deals with the East Timorese struggle for liberation from Indonesia. It follows the life of its narrator, Adolph Ng, who finds himself reluctantly drawn into a national liberation struggle. The setting is Danu, which is invaded and occupied at the beginning of the novel by the malais. The fact that Danu represents East Timor and that the invaders are the Indonesians is barely concealed in the narrative:

The malais and ourselves had been parts of different empires. They were not Malayans, by the way, governed by the British in the old days and become independent as Malaysians. Although there were similarities in language and culture, their old Dictator had fought a war against these Malayan cousins. Malai was a Danuese word, meaning stranger or foreigner; but, happily, it also sounded like Malay. Our malais, our scourge, had been colonized by a crew of flaxen-headed burghers and herring fishermen from the North and ourselves by a gang of swarthy wine-growers and olive producers from the very south of Europe. (30)

Furthermore, Mo narrates the story of the occupation of Danu with close attention to the historical details surrounding the occupation of East Timor. The invasion of Danu in the novel occurs on December 7, precisely the day in 1975 that the Indonesian military invaded East Timor. The mass organizations of the East Timorese resistance, FRETILIN and FALINTIL are referred to in the novel as FAKOUM and FAKINTIL. The names of people and places are sometimes left unchanged or thinly disguised. We are told also of the killings of five Australian journalists who had written “AUSTRALIA” on the wall of the house they were staying in, hoping that this would protect them. (The real killings on which this incident is based were captured poignantly in John Pilger’s film Death of a Nation.) The correspondence between the novel and the history of East Timor is remarkable, but is not however, what concerns us here. What does concern us is the fact that Mo offers us hints and clues throughout the novel that alert us to this historical reality, but at the same time fictionalizes the narration so as to create a certain distance between the historical and the narrative reality.

The Danuese closest to Adolph are a group of Leftists who form the core of the struggle against the malai occupation. Witnessing the massacres that follow immediately after the invasion, Adolph, who owns a hotel, tries to accommodate himself to the new political reality, and is coerced into housing the commander of the invading forces. This does not last long, and against his will, Adolph is literally carried away, kicking and screaming, into the country by a group of guerrilla fighters, and forced to work for the resistance. The bulk of the novel describes the harsh lives of the guerrillas, and Adolph’s gradual assimilation into the group. In time he becomes a leader in his own right, training the younger members of the group (whom he calls his woodchucks) and developing makeshift explosives for the movement. In a surprise attack on their camp, he is captured by the malai and finds himself working as a domestic servant in the house of a malai Colonel. At the end of the novel, he buys his way out of Danu, returns to America via Portugal, and hoping to make a fresh start, leaves for Brazil with a new name and a new identity.

The distancing I referred to above is achieved through a detached cynicism that marks the narrator’s tone. Adolph’s cynicism and his acute consciousness of his multiply-determined self seem at first sight to represent a decentered, fragmented, postmodern subject. Throughout the narrative, Mo foregrounds Adolph’s homosexuality, his ethnic-Chinese identity, and his familiarity and affinity with Western cultural norms. As a Chinese citizen of Danu, Adolph’s diasporic identity defines him as outsider, an uprooted individual ghettoized within a racist stereotype. An hotelier by profession, he occupies an economically privileged stratum, and is conscious of this fact: “I was a Chinese entrepreneur with capital. I was an exploiter. I was a provider of work. I was a parasite. I was hated. I was to be appeased. I was vulnerable. I was powerful. This was interesting” (51). His reflections on his own subjectivity work to historicize and contextualize ethnic identity:

Most Chinese didn’t give a damn about politics, independence or dependency, it was all one and the same to them. ... [W]e were resented by the Danuese, of that there could be no doubt. Exploitation was the name of the game. We’d always done it and were cheerfully continuing the tradition of our ancestors. Rip-off didn’t begin to describe it. We held a stranglehold on the economy: transport ; the distribution and export of the coffee-crop; the retail goods we hawked up-country at inflated prices. Whole villages were eyeball deep in debt to a Chinaman. (7)

Adolph’s ethnicity is significant, given the history of discrimination against Chinese citizens of Indonesia and East Timor. Constâncio Pinto reports that ABRI (the Indonesian military) “specifically targeted ethnic Chinese during the invasion” (263-4, n. 4) and that between 1974 and 1985, the Timorese Chinese population had dropped from 20,000 to “a few thousand.”[3] Given the scale of devastation that this community has suffered, an ethnic-Chinese figures as an unlikely hero for a novel about the Timorese resistance movement. But it is precisely this unlikelihood that the novel seeks to highlight. As a gay ethnic-Chinese character, Adolph views the happenings in Danu at two removes, as it were. His initial remoteness and detachment is reinforced by the fact that he has traveled to the West, sent by his father to study in Canada.

Adolph emphasizes his alienation from Danuese society early in the novel. He takes in the invasion of the malais with a self-conscious aloofness: “I had been standing as if I was some privileged witness, outside the events I was observing, with, I admit, some degree of interest” (4); “I had the sensation of being an invulnerable witness inhabiting a third dimension” (7); “[T]he sense of unreality, of alienation from the actual, descended upon me” (9). When we first learn who he is, it is with a characteristic self-effacing humor that he teaches us to pronounce his name: “My name is Adolph Ng. Please laugh. To pronounce it, imagine you have been constipated a long time. Now strain. There you have my surname” (24). Adolph is an “educated man ... a man of the modern world. The world of television, of universities, of advertising, of instant communications, made me what I am. It made me a citizen of the great world and it made me a misfit for ever” (24). At the same time, his position as outsider allows him a privileged insight into Danuese society. The remoteness from his surroundings leads Adolph to assume the posture of an independent observer, and the narrative is constantly interrupted by his self-mocking humor.

This incessant self-ironizing, however, plays a crucial role in establishing a connection between narrator and reader — Adolph’s credibility is never in doubt precisely because he refuses to romanticize or idealize his own position. He constantly reminds us of his “Chinese pragmatism,” insisting that he got involved in the guerrilla struggle only because he was given no choice. He resists coding himself as a hero, and in fact demystifies the entire world of guerrilla struggle: “I can accommodate myself to anything. By now I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. But I’ve never been destined to stay on the same course for long. I don’t think I am guilty of glamorizing myself” (124).

Nor is Adolph guilty of glamorizing his comrades, or his adopted country. Witness his wry comments on the tenuous nature of democracy in the newly-independent colonies:

Graceful surrender, abandonment to the democratic process, are luxuries of the advanced societies where, among other things, all the faces are not known to you. We operated on the politics of the grudge. Behind the sloganising, the grand statements of principle, not far behind it all, were self-interest and survival. There’s a law: the more tinpot the banana republic, the more flamboyant the flag: eagles grasping cobras, that kind of thing. And the more sonorous the party programme, the pettier and more virulent its sectionalism: Motherland and the death squad. (69)

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Danu and the Danuese are to his mind not worth fighting for or supporting; on the contrary, by drawing attention to the weaknesses of the society, he urges us towards a more intimate understanding and sympathy for the struggle than would have been possible either by romanticizing the Danuese or by appealing to abstract ideas of freedom and self-determination.

The reason for Mo’s use of irony in this novel becomes clear when we consider the sheer brutality of the world that he is trying to depict. For how does one represent genocide, and particularly genocide that one’s audience is largely unaware of? How does one depict the horrors and brutalities of a life of violent struggle, where every human relationship is ripped apart and destroyed by forces beyond one’s control? Mo’s answer to this is to create a narrator who distanced himself from the events that he narrated, even as he himself was a participant in those events. The irony and reflexivity of the narrative thus achieve a sort of Brechtian alienation-effect, forcing the reader to reflect on the ideological implications of the narration. This effect is clearest at those times when Adolph is pooh-poohing some brave deed that he has just committed. Whether it is rescuing a comrade from enemy fire, or braving minefields to reach his target, Adolph insists that he is doing it merely for self-preservation and with little willing commitment. But the narrator does protest too much, and we learn to read beyond his representation of himself.

In like manner, Adolph’s demystification of the guerrilla fighters means that he must present them as ordinary human beings and not as heroes. The leaders of FAKOUM, Osvaldo, X. Ray, Rosa and others are presented with a psychological realism that resists any romanticization of the revolutionary hero. Rosa is hopelessly idealistic; Osvaldo a consummate, calculating politician; Dr. Maria a cold-hearted and self-absorbed professional. Consider, for instance, Adolph’s comparison of Rosa to the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg early in the novel. He begins, characteristically, by mocking Rosa’s attempt to start a children’s crèche as a way of organizing women, calling it “an absurdity.” He then tells us:

I was treated to a lecture on “combined and uneven development of backward societies.” She was a Trotskyist, of a kind. Trotsky, Bronstein, Bernstein, the Russian Jew, on the lips of a headhunter’s granddaughter! She might have been walking proof of her own theory. (36)

Soon, however, the narrative tone changes, and we get a more sober, less ironic account of Rosa, one that reads almost like an apology for his earlier flippancy:

It was easy to mock, and, indeed, I do not believe I have succeeded in expunging a certain unwarranted superiority of tone from my account. ... Behind the phrases, behind the formulae, the inappropriate analogies between small and large, there was a grain of truth in what she was saying. ... And if Krupskaya, Kollontai, Luxemburg had been women of our society, what would they have done? They’d have started with a crèche, of course. (37)

Ironically, again, it is precisely due to his demystification of heroism that these characters emerge as heroic individuals.

Adolph constantly reminds us of the futility of struggle and resistance, particularly in this remote corner of the world, because, he says, “If it doesn’t get onto TV in the West, it hasn’t happened” (91). And yet, ironically, it has happened, and Adolph’s experience stands as testimony to a truth that his narrative constantly seeks to deny. The final irony, of course, is that in the conditions of extreme adversity that these characters find themselves, courage is itself redundant: “There’s no such thing as a hero,” Adolph says, “only ordinary people asked extraordinary things in terrible circumstances — and delivering” (407).

As Elaine Yee Lin Ho remarks in one of the few academic analyses of Mo’s writing, Adolph’s voice, “ambivalent, and sometimes frankly whining … unsettles the bardic inflections of traditional epic which register identification with, rather than distance from, the values of heroism being narrated” (93). This notion of the “redundancy of courage,” as an ironic confirmation of the inevitability of struggle, serves to revitalize political commitment to a vision of a liberated future, and insists on the continuing relevance of the struggle for self-determination in a world structured by imperialist relations. Shirley Geok-lin Lim therefore argues that

Mo’s novel is unambiguously modernist rather than postmodern, asserting the existence of the individual subject as the valuation on which history, civilization, and morality are measured. ... [T]he identity of the subject is no ‘regnant cliché’ of race and identity politics but the very ground on which the totalizing obliteration of genocide is combated.[4] (100)

We might add here that this is an identity that is closely connected with the struggle for liberation; once removed from the actual site of resistance, Adolph’s sense of alienation returns. When he arrives in Brazil, he finds that

I didn’t have a solid grasp of myself — I depended on other people and surroundings to cue me. So I wandered bizzarely, often with that feeling of standing outside myself as a separate and dispassionate watcher, that I had experienced the day the malais had invaded Danu but this time without terror. I’d repeat my name . . . to try to bring me back inside myself. But it didn’t work. I realized who I was OK — I just couldn’t live inside the envelope. (406-7)

And he has to make himself anew: “I was wearier, I was more tolerant, that was the only difference and that change only enabled me the better to accept what I’d always been” (407).

As Lim points out, “Ironically, the diasporic subject who is constructed by nationalists as non-national must carry the weight of moral authority and national history, both threatened by the supranational history of the malais” (99). As diasporic subject, therefore, Adolph seems to exemplify the positionality that postcolonial theory finds enabling. However, such a reading fails to recognize that Adolph comes to carry this burden of responsibility only in the course of his involvement in the struggle for liberation, and I would argue that by the end of the novel, we witness a transformation in his character. He is no longer the cynical, mocking outsider, but an individual deeply committed to a vision of a liberated future for Danu. While Adolph emerges as the most fully developed consciousness in the novel, his character is overdetermined by the conditions and contingencies of a desperate struggle for survival against overwhelming odds. Borrowing the terminology of Raymond Williams and of Edward Said, one might say that while at the beginning of the novel, the narrator finds himself with a vague sense of “alignment” or “affiliation” to his race/ethnicity and a competing affiliation towards Danu, his experience of struggle transforms him into a figure with a deep sense of political “commitment.”[5]

This commitment is elaborated not primarily in the terms of Danuese nationalism, but of an expansive liberatory humanism. The concluding paragraph of the novel is remarkable for its lack of the tongue-in-cheek, ironic tone that we have come to expect of our narrator, and it is worth quoting at length:

Well, it was a conclusion, not the start of anything new. And if I couldn’t make away with myself, how could the malais make away with a whole nation? Before the invasion there were seven hundred thousand Danuese. Now there are less than half a million. If that isn’t genocide I don’t know what is. But I know something else — you can’t kill everyone. It isn’t over. . . . [T]here’s always someone else who’ll step forward. Even a tiny society like ours had the capacity to throw up any number of superior people. ... The malai might have put the torch to the field, they might think they’ve exterminated all the creatures in it, but there’ll always be one woodchuck left. There always is. (407-8)

Crucially, prior to this finale, Adolph comes into contact with Joaquim Lobato, the Minister of the Exterior for the Danuese national movement, who has spent years lobbying the United Nations to come out in favor of Danuese independence. Needless to say, he has been less than successful, and Adolph remarks on how remote New York is from Danu. Lobato responds by telling him, “This isn’t remote . . . This is where it’s determined; this is where it began; this is where it will end.” He “change[s] [Adolph’s] understanding forever” when he tells him that the US has a strategic interest in the invasion and occupation of Danu, and that “the American President and his adviser were in the malai capital at the time” (404-5).[6]

Adolph’s final recognition of the significance of the Danuese struggle thus comes out of an understanding of the role of US imperialism in the region. The internationalizing gesture that this represents is significant, as it brings the narrative “home” to the West, as it were. Just as Adolph learns that the “remoteness” of New York from Danu is only illusory, so the (Western) reader learns of the ties of imperialism that link him or her to the people of Danu. However, given the reception — or lack of reception — that the novel received in the West, we might say that this gesture points ironically to the fact that the internationalism isn’t there.

In this sense, it seems to me, The Redundancy of Courage resists incorporation into a postmodern/postcolonial problematic which would emphasize the “shifting margins of cultural displacement” as the site of resistance (Bhaba, Location 21). The idealist ahistoricism of such a claim stands revealed when we consider that Adolph’s cultural displacement — his marginalized ethnic and sexual identity — does not make him more or less able to act. It does, however, enable him to narrate the story of this resistance. While the act of narration is itself seen by some postcolonialists as a politically subversive act, it might also be read as — and indeed, Adolph asks us to read it this way — a marker of privilege. Furthermore, it would not be correct to say that Adolph’s identity-as-performance, or performativity, is in any way enabling either; indeed, we are constantly asked to question whether his identity is willful performance, or forced behavior, or ironic facade. In a recent article H. D. Harootunian has critiqued what he calls the “obsessive Foucauldianism” of postcolonial studies:

Sometimes, the mere enunciation of cultural difference and thus identity is made to appear as a political act of crowning importance, when it usually means the disappearance of politics, as such. The politics of identity based on the enunciation of cultural difference is not the same as political identity, whose formation depends less on difference than on some recognition of equivalences. (140)

I would argue that Timothy Mo’s novel exemplifies the coming into being of precisely such a political identity that is based not on ethnic particularity or the articulation of difference for its own sake, but on the “recognition of equivalences” amongst diverse peoples under a common yoke of colonialism and imperialism.

Theoretical Considerations

Let us return to the intellectual and political context of the novel’s publication. Hard on the heels of George Bush’s “new world order” rhetoric, a term emerged in the early 1990s that was soon to become an intellectual and political buzzword. I am referring, of course, to “globalization.” Simon During in a recent essay suggests that “in the analysis of contemporary society and culture [globalization] displac[ed] postcolonialism and its twin, postmodernism”  (32). In terms of their political and ideological effects, theories of globalization displayed continuity, rather than a break, with postmodernism. Where postmodernism had its origins in literary and cultural studies, globalization emerged from the social sciences and in various ways confirmed, via political economy, the speculations of postmodernism. In the postmodern vision, nation-states and nationalisms, as much as classes and class antagonisms, were a thing of the past. For the new globalists, in like manner, the nation-state ceased to have any meaningful political, economic or cultural significance, as political theorists like Susan Strange and Vincent Cable argued. The “erosion” of the nation-state and the consequent homogenization of national cultures, in the neo-liberal rhetoric of globalization, was a necessary prelude to realizing Bush’s new world order. Thus Tim Congdon wrote in The Spectator:

Economic nationalism, one of the most powerful and destructive forces in the twentieth century, is becoming obsolete. Trade and finance are so increasingly international in character, and business strategy for large companies is so totally globalized, that the idea of the nation-state is losing its relevance. ... Over time military antagonisms between nations will become literally absurd as the separateness of nations breaks down and eventually becomes meaningless. (21-5)

The flip side of this claim, of course, was the notion that nationalism today can only play a reactionary role, standing in the way of “freedom” and “democracy.” The emergence of virulently chauvinistic nationalisms in the Balkans and ethnic particularities in Central Africa only served to confirm these sweeping generalizations.

Given these wholesale dismissals of nationalism it is not surprising that a novel like The Redundancy of Courage should remain unacknowledged as a staunchly anti-imperialist text. Its representation of resistance, while avoiding the pitfalls of nationalist essentialism and “authenticity,” represents “the shifting margins of cultural displacement” not as an enabling condition of resistance, but as a profoundly alienating and debilitating experience. Furthermore, the national dimension of the struggle is not articulated primarily through any prior commitment to the nation form; rather, it is a condition imposed on the colonized by the contingencies of their struggle. In this arena the “national” becomes a name not for an ethnic chauvinism, but for its opposite: i.e. for   solidarity with others involved in the same struggle.

“I do not want them to be forgotten,” begins Mo’s novel, and I would like to conclude this section by pointing to the lasting irony of this opening. For it seems to me that the novel’s invisibility is symptomatic of a willful forgetting, on the part of postcolonial scholars, of the continuing relevance of imperialism as a category of analysis and national liberation as a still relevant zone of commitment. There is, however, another lesson we can draw from the relative neglect of The Redundancy of Courage. For it is not clear precisely which category of literary studies is relevant to such a novel. Postcolonial studies? Diaspora studies? Asia-Pacific area studies? The novelist is a British citizen who emigrated from Hong Kong; the novel itself is set in Southeast Asia; its mode of address is to a clearly identified Western audience, while its subject matter is a liberation struggle that has thus far been carefully kept hidden from the eyes and ears of that audience.

While analyses of diasporic literature and culture have become prominent within postcolonial studies, the field has thus far overemphasized the experiences and concerns of the Indian diaspora, and a number of critics have pointed to the manner in which studies of India, and of Bengal in particular, have assumed a certain hegemony in academic theorizations of postcoloniality.[7]  On the other hand, much of Asian literature, including Sri Lankan, Indonesian, and Filipino literature, remains the preserve of area specialists and has not quite made it into the mainstream of postcolonial studies. The Redundancy of Courage therefore occupies an ambiguous institutional location, neither fully metropolitan nor quite “postcolonial.”

What happens to our theorizations of postcoloniality when we move beyond India and into such regions as Indonesia or the Philippines? How can an anti-nationalist theoretical problematic respond to the ongoing struggles for national liberation in various parts of the world, from Aceh and West Papua (Irian Jaya) to Palestine and Iraq? In the absence of such commitment within postcolonial studies, we are left with little to say about a politics of resistance in the face of a new imperialism. This new imperialism, a neo-colonialism that is fast resurrecting the discourses of the old colonialism, requires a sustained cultural and political response. In a New York Times article written soon after the emergence of the global justice movement in the wake of the “battle in Seattle” of 1999, Chris Hedges credited postcolonial studies for having politicized a new generation of student activists. Whether postcolonial studies can continue to maintain its relevance as an oppositional discourse will depend on an honest re-appraisal of the field’s assumptions about resistance and working-class agency.



From the Publisher’s Review Comments of the novel.


See Rao, 2003.


For the figures, see Taylor, 164; Turner; and Drake, 103-5.


For the term “regnant cliché,” see Appiah and Gates.


On the distinction between “alignment,” “commitment,” and “affiliation,” see Williams, 199-205; Robbins; and Prasad, 76.


 It is now a well-documented fact that Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta barely twelve hours before the invasion, and that the Indonesian forces waited for them to leave before moving in. See Nairn, xiii.


 H. D. Harootunian, for instance, suggests that postcolonial studies’ associations with British literature might “explain why so much of postcolonial discourse has instantiated South Asia, especially Bengal, rather than other parts of the Empire or indeed the empires of other nations” (142). Furthermore, in numerous respects, India is an atypical case when it comes to postcolonial nations. Atypical in the sense of having had a strong indigenous bourgeoisie at the time of independence; a vibrant, secular nationalist movement with a long history of mobilization and organization; an economy large enough to develop effectively through import-substitution in the period immediately following independence; a robust civil society; and a relatively uninterrupted liberal democratic system of governance. A thorough discussion of Indian “exceptionalism,” however, is beyond the scope of this article

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