Jasmine | Critical Review by Gary Boire

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Jasmine.
This section contains 1,016 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Gary Boire

SOURCE: "Eyre and Anglos," in Canadian Literature, No. 132, Spring, 1992, pp. 160-61.

In the following review, Boire asserts that Mukherjee's "Jasmine is a tremendously interesting work, not simply because it foregrounds characters and situations and nationalities so often disguised or dismissed in the western/American tradition, but primarily because of Mukherjee's ironic nuance and sinewy revisionism."

Jasmine is Bharati Mukherjee's first novel in fourteen years; like her stories, it is highly crafted, impeccably understated, and virtually seamless in its unfolding. It is also, like many of her public statements and much of her writing, controversial. Like Atwood, Mukherjee has attracted a network of hecklers who pay more attention to her biography than her texts, and who delight in gainsaying as self-promotional Mukherjee's many observations about exclusionary racism and the Canadian literary scene. In this "word of mouth" category Jasmine has already gathered clusters of disagreeing admirers and critics. What for one reader is a startlingly intense "de-Europeanization" of the western/American novel (a hybrid mixture of romance, murder, and travel genres), is for another an opportunistic ride on the currently faddish postcolonial bandwagon. Just another novel about emigration, cultural difference, language, and racism. I mention this kind of extraneous networking because it is, to my mind, precisely the kind of detrimental gossip that would distort and ultimately disguise what I think is a very impressive and very important novel. Jasmine is a deceptively simple allegory which deliberately sabotages through rewriting. Consider.

On the simplest of levels this is a story about a young Indian woman who lights out for the new territories (which Mukherjee appropriates from her American sources with enviable skill). In sparse, symbolically condensed prose, amidst a series of time disjunctions and memory shifts, Mukherjee tells the life of Jyoti whose husband, Prakash, is murdered in India by a terrorist bomb during the partition riots. In rapid succession Jyoti smuggles herself to the Florida coast, emigrates to New York where she becomes a governess, and then to Iowa where she conceives a child with a banker who is confined to a wheelchair. Here she ultimately faces a moral choice of profound complexity. Along the way she becomes the adoptive mother of a Vietnamese refugee, changes her name from Jyoti to Jasmine to Jase to Jane, and witnesses first-hand the dereliction of the American Dream: the book is crammed with the violence of murder, rape, suicide, starvation and assassination.

In one sense, this story tells the paradigmatic "postcolonial" narrative; it is the story that "tells" Euro- and Americo-centricity back into itself by reversing readerly (read Anglo-American) expectations, by including all that is usually excluded, by bringing inside what is usually left outside. Mukherjee's crippled American banker who falls in love with a Punjabi woman and who then adopts a Vietnamese son (both of whom, interestingly, leave him to "rebirth" elsewhere and with others) develops into a resistant allegory that deconstructs the allure of American mythology. Horatio Alger may whisper from the wings, but he never steals the show. In fact, he is banished in short order.

But Jasmine is a "retelling" of considerably greater sophistication than this mere plot summary would indicate. Mukherjee writes with an almost surgical sense of irony (and indeed there is relatively little back-thumping humour to be found), an irony that subtly dismantles/unravels a history of oppressive positionings. I am thinking at this point of two comments by two very different writers: (1) Frederic Jameson, who so aptly remarks in The Political Unconscious,

In its emergent strong form a genre is essentially a socio-symbolic message, or, in other terms, that form is immanently and intrinsically an ideology in its own right. When such forms are reappropriated and refashioned in quite different social and cultural contexts, this message persists and must be functionally reckoned into the new form … the ideology of the form itself, thus sedimented, persists into the latter, more complex structure, as a generic message which coexists—either as a contradiction or, on the other hand, as a mediatory or harmonizing mechanism—with elements from later stages.

And (2) Margery Fee, who recently commented, "radical writing, by definition, is writing that is struggling … to rewrite the dominant ideology from within, to produce a different version of reality." A strategy of reclamation and disclosure, this peculiar type of ironic recuperation is a means by which anti-colonialists might reappropriate the language so as to liberate both the worlds and roles suppressed by its official ideologues.

Significantly, Bharati Mukherjee writes in precisely this kind of ironically allusive/appropriative mode that sets up coexistent contradictions; for example, Jyoti recalls her childhood reading: "The British books were thick, with more long words per page. I remember Great Expectations and Jane Eyre, both of which I was forced to abandon because they were too difficult." The importance here is that Mukherjee also "abandons" both these Empire icons, not because of difficulty but because of her own need to "re-write" past literary and political wrongs. Both books (but especially Jane Eyre) echo and re-echo throughout Jasmine until Jane wearily and ruefully remarks, "I think maybe I am Jane with my very own Mr Rochester, and maybe it'll be okay for us to go to Missouri where the rules are looser and yield to the impulse in a drive-in chapel." Mukherjee not only echoes and then rejects the Jane Eyre scenario (Jane does not stay with her Rochester), but Mukherjee then replays Bronte's strategy of dividing the male lead into two distinct characters: the crippled Bud Ripplemeyer/Rochester and the professorial Taylor/St. John Rivers; ironically Mukherjee's Jane opts for the one learning Hindustani (but in a highly rewritten way!)

Jasmine is a tremendously interesting work, not simply because it foregrounds characters and situations and nationalities so often disguised or dismissed in the western/American tradition, but primarily because of Mukherjee's ironic nuance and sinewy revisionism. This is an important book not only for what it says, but also for how it says it. Mukherjee's is a revisionary, appropriative technique, one that "channels" deeply (to borrow from one of her rare comic scenes) into an existent literary landscape in order to excavate her own highly deserved space.

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This section contains 1,016 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gary Boire
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Gary Boire from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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