Thomas Keneally | Critical Essay by Judith Ryan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 2,398 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Judith Ryan

SOURCE: "Shrunk to an Interloper," in Field Work: Sites in Literary and Cultural Studies, edited by Marjorie Garber, Paul B. Franklin, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Routledge, 1996, pp. 113-19.

In the following essay, Ryan compares the authorial perspectives of Schindler's List, Günter Grass's Show Your Tongue, and Marguerite Duras's The Lover, to account for the ways their national identities influence their attitudes toward multicultural relations.

In one of my very earliest classrooms—it must have been at nursery school—hung a large map of the world. In the lower middle part of the map, a big reddish-pink island swam in a blue sea; at both upper corners small reddish-pink shapes hovered like guardian angels on either hand; in the center a large reddish-pink triangle pointed downward from an amorphous and multicolored land mass; and the whole map was satisfyingly unified by patches of ruddy color distributed over a substantial portion of its surface. I did not know then that what I was experiencing was the aesthetics of Empire.

"Two souls, alas! reside within my breast," declares Goethe's Faust. Within my breast reside, however, not two, but at least three souls. Teaching German and comparative literature would seem to place me equally on the side of the "national" and the "global." Yet I also happen to be Australian. The Australian self—my "third soul"—subverts conventional relations between the smaller and the larger worlds.

Hence I've conceived this paper from the viewpoint of what Australia's great poet, Ern Malley, has described as a "black swan of trespass on alien waters." In Australia, we were taught from the beginning to internalize a Eurocentric view while at the same time defiantly creating an Australian one. When we learned French and German, we had to memorize the words for scores of trees, plants, and flowers, along with their English translations—but practically none of this vegetation actually grew in Australia. I still don't know what a nightingale sounds like—though the mere thought of its song is enough to move me quite profoundly.

To place myself as an Australian is to feel myself—again in the words of Ern Malley—"shrunk to an interloper," yet also conveniently located off to the side of an argument in which it is only too easy to take one side or the other. If you ask me whether "national literatures" should be eliminated in favor of "global" perspectives, I'm inclined to say "yes"—as long as I don't specifically think about Australian literature and its long and ultimately successful struggle for an identity of its own.

Let me talk now about some literary texts of our time in which a great writer has tried to come to grips with the problem of the national versus the global viewpoint. My first example is Thomas Keneally's novel Schindler's List, of 1982; my second is Günter Grass's travelogue Show Your Tongue, of 1988; the third, Marguerite Duras's novel The Lover, of 1984. In a more conventional presentation, I would have felt obliged to treat these works chronologically; but what interests me here is the gradation in complexity with which they explore the ways in which one's national identity affects the position one takes toward complex cultural relations. I will try to show that even in the apparently dualistic worlds of these works, another, more complicated "soul" leaves an important trace—a trace that might even be regarded as the principal message of these difficult and troubling texts.

Schindler's List is the story of a man who saves numerous Jews from the Nazi death camps for motives that are by no means unmixed and irreproachable. In the novel, as opposed to the movie, the ambiguous nature of Schindler's actions is highlighted at every turn. Schindler is a Faustian figure with two souls in his breast, genuinely caring, in some sense, about the Jews entrusted to his care, but at the same time driven by economic motives and his desire to succeed as a big businessman. After the war, the Jews Schindler saved from the Nazis are scattered over the face of the Earth among what the "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book describes as "seven nations—Australia, Israel, West Germany, Austria, the United States, Argentina, and Brazil." The Schindler survivors, a nation in the psychological sense, are disseminated throughout a range of other nations in the political sense of the word. But this duality of psychological versus political nationhood is only one way of seeing what is at work in the formulation of the "Author's Note." This prefatory explanation also subtly disturbs most customary hierarchies, arranging the various nations neither alphabetically nor in order of their relative political power. In this list, Australia is named first.

Another important trace of a "third soul" occurs in this text at the point where Oskar Schindler decides to move his enamel factory from Cracow to Brinnlitz. On returning to Cracow from a preliminary visit to the Brinnlitz site, Schindler finds the charred wreckage of a downed Stirling bomber. The men in the plane, he discovers, were Australian. "If Oskar had wanted some sort of confirmation [of his plans to move away from Cracow], this was it. That men should come all this way from unimaginable little towns in the Australian Outback to hasten the end in Cracow." Whereas the writer who names Australia first in his list of seven nations can only be an Australian, the speaker in this passage about the Stirling bomber shifts into the consciousness of someone for whom Australia is quite remote from the familiar. No Australian would speak of "unimaginable little towns in the Australian Outback"; even if we have never actually seen outback towns, Australians have no trouble imagining them. Keneally's novel, despite its subsequent entry into the "global world" by means of the Steven Spielberg movie, is nonetheless a text that secretly insists on its Australianness—while overtly distancing itself from Australia by treating World War II from a perspective that appears to transcend what might otherwise have seemed, to the "global" world, a far too limited one.

The implications of Schindler's List for Australians go beyond the events of German racism in the nineteen-thirties and -forties, though this has rarely been noted in connection with the book. Most Australians would prefer, after all, not to think about their country's own racist past as exemplified in the notorious "White Australia" policy, the aim of which was to prohibit the immigration of Asians and Pacific Islanders into Australia and to deport workers of Asian origin from the sugarcane fields of Queensland. When the original bill (called the Immigration Restriction Act) was enacted in 1901, one newspaper wrote, for example, that the policy would save Australia "from the colored curse" and from becoming "a mongrel nation torn with racial dissension." The Immigration Restriction Act was not rescinded until 1973. Only those familiar with the history of Australian nationalism can fully understand the irony of that little scene in Schindler's List (the novel) where Australian bombers descend upon Cracow in an attempt to drop supplies for the partisans fighting against Nazism and where the charred remains of one pilot are found in the destroyed plane, still firmly clutching "an English Bible." The novel's final sentence about Oskar Schindler, "he was mourned on every continent," thus acquires a peculiar resonance for readers from Keneally's homeland.

Gunter Grass's Show Your Tongue is, as it were, the other face of Schindler's List. Written not from the point of view of an ex-colonial, but from that of a former colonizing nation, the book is contemporaneous with Grass's 1988 proposal for a Pan-European cultural union. In large measure, Show Your Tongue is about the crossing of borders and the partitioning of nations. Grass's visit to India—the ostensible subject of the book—also permits a side trip to Bangladesh, a divided country whose citizens repeatedly urge him to draw the comparison with Germany, which at the time of course was still divided. In Grass's view, only one thing unites the split Bengali nation: its admiration for its lost leader Subhas Chandra Bose. The novel opens with a discussion of a bronze statute of Bose in Calcutta, and later notes the existence of statues of him in other cities. Traveling around the subcontinent, Günter and Use Grass learn the story of Bose's attempt to free India from British domination by allying himself in turn with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Stalinist Russia; they learn of the plane accident that caused his death and of his continued popularity in India and Bangladesh as a "Führer" and "holy man" who is thought to be hiding out in the hills and will reputedly return, at the age of one hundred, to rescue his fellow Bengali from their fate. In Grass's view, the numerous monuments to Bose crowd out memorials to his polar opposite, Gandhi, the "other soul"—to use my Faustian terminology—of the country the two Germans are touring.

Subverting this easy dualism are the narrator's repeated references to Ilse's uninterrupted preoccupation with the nineteenth-century German realist Theodor Fontane, whose novels she reads obsessively throughout their travels. The presence of this literary precursor in the minds of the two travelers gives an additional twist to their response to Indian cultural history. Fontane's comments on the Scottish regiments' defense of Calcutta during the Sepoy uprising, which took place while he was living in Britain as press attaché for Prussia, the similarities between present-day traces of Victorian India and the nineteenth-century country estates described in Fontane's novels, and finally Grass's embarrassed discovery of Fontane's "ironic, patronizing amiability when dealing with Jews," serve to cast an icon much cherished in the German literary tradition into a highly questionable light. Grass's book about India complicates the insider-outsider problematic of traditional travel writing by insisting on its Germanness and criticizing it at one and the same time, distinguishing between home and abroad, past and present while simultaneously conflating these seeming oppositions. An early note in the travelogue articulates the difficulties of this complicated perspective: "What I am flying away from: repetition that claims to be news; from Germany and Germany, the way two deadly foes, armed to the teeth, grow ever more alike; from insights achieved from too close up; from my own perplexity, admitted only sotto voce, flying with me."

Marguerite Duras's novel The Lover is an even more complex attempt to deal with these issues. Narrated by a woman who, like Duras herself, grew up as the daughter of a French schoolteacher in Vietnam but has now reversed her parents' emigration and returned to live in France, it tells the story of an adolescent who moves among what seem at first to be three cultures: her French family, the Vietnamese world around her, and the young Chinese businessman who becomes the partner in her first erotic experiences. The intrusion of the Chinese lover troubles the fifteen-and-a-half-year-old's adolescent self-image, a deliberately ambiguous amalgam of apparent oppositions. We first see her dressed in gold lamé sandals and man's flat-brimmed hat, a privileged white girl on her way to school who nonetheless looks and acts in many ways like a child prostitute. Dualisms of male and female, mother country and colony, educated and uneducated classes, age and youth—among others—are set up in this opening passage, only to be undermined by the Chinese lover, who cannot be identified by any of these conventional rubrics. Other elements in the novel also work to subvert the binary structures of colonialism: the narrator's retarded classmate, Hélène Lagonelle, who belongs to the privileged boarding-school world but can never be completely integrated into it; the narrator's mother, whose psyche combines activist ambitions with passivity and melancholia; and the violent older brother who is at once a wild beast in the Vietnamese jungle, a viciously oppressive representative of the male sex and the colonizing nation, and the ultimate symbol of the decline of empire and (conflated but not necessarily identical with it) the modern collapse of reason. Finally, the retrospective narration that comprehends the past not as a factual reality but as an imaginative and constantly metamorphosing construct that must continually be subjected to questioning, subverts the conventional autobiographical compact as it is usually described by literary theorists. Couched in deceptively simple language, the novel increasingly gathers complexity. Its insistence on what is not said, not written, not photographed, is much more than a call for the reader to recover what has been repressed—or suppressed, according to one's perspective. Nor is it an attempt to hold oppositions in suspension by converting them first into ambiguities, and then, by sheer multiplication, into what is fashionably termed "indeterminacy." Rather, Duras's novel is quite literally a demonstration of the resistance put up by linguistic and cultural structures to representation when even an individual viewpoint can only be understood as inherently multiple.

Many of us who move easily between "national" and "global" traditions have tended to ignore what remains in our psyches of a colonial or otherwise subjugated existence. Rescued from its repression, this "third soul" can become a powerful tool to undermine an opposition between the "national" and the "global" that should long since have become outmoded. And yet it is surely an affront to those who have been more clearly and outrageously oppressed to suggest that a postcolonial like myself is peculiarly equipped to dissolve binarisms. For this reason, I do not propose that we should all adopt in some sense a position on the margins—that is precisely what my literary examples do not do. Rather, they show the complexities of contemporary cultural situations in which the opposition between center and periphery is no longer adequate. But neither is it enough, they imply, merely to activate a third perspective in addition to the familiar two. Rather, they suggest that we should experiment more freely with an array of different positions, discarding conventional dualisms, but also avoiding "indeterminacies" that swallow up fine distinctions and nuances that mark relational experience in all its exhilaration and despair. Even when the languages we speak and the traditions in which we move prevent us from freeing ourselves entirely from oppositional thinking, we should at least become more aware of the interplay of multiple perspectives that informs our understanding of culture and that makes it impossible for any individual, whatever his or her actual intention, to be reduced to a spokesperson simply for the "national" or the "global." Reading literary texts, and observing ourselves as we read them, is one of the best ways we have of understanding this intricate problem.

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