The postcolonial trajectory in English literature begins, oddly enough, with two authors from the British Isles in the first decades of the last century. In 1908, the Englishman E.M. Forster published his third novel in what promised to be a long and prolific career – A Room with a View. In this novel, the heroine Lucy Honeychurch elopes with her lover to Italy. They escape from the mad industrial and colonial metropolitan life of England at the turn of the century to their room with a view of Florence – where they can see across the Renaissance city to glimpse the fullest possibilities of life beyond the insane and alien compulsions that go with modern life. Forster’s first five novels try to probe into the contradictions between personal relationships and life under capitalism – and, convincingly or unconvincingly, their characters succeed in finding this “room with a view.” They reinforce one of the most prevalent ideas in Western society – that a strong romantic relationship affords us a refuge from the alien forces that control us in the rest of our lives. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, for example, calls this “a shelter from pigs on the wing.”
But after his fifth novel, things were beginning to change in Forster’s outlook. It is impossible to disconnect the personal and political here. First of all, he began to make friends with many left-wing people – including the early English revolutionary Edward Carpenter. Second, and relatedly, he came to the realization that he was homosexual. At the same time he was exposed to political views that questioned the very bases of Western capitalist society, he was forced to see that there were some forms of love that his society would not tolerate. There was no “room with a view” – not for him, nor, it was clear, for anyone else. Personal relationships, especially romantic ones, do not exist outside of the day-to-day world. They are the fundamental way in which we experience it – and, tragically, the first place where its pressures come to bear on us.
His last novel, A Passage to India, picks up from this. Its center is the friendship between Aziz, an Indian Muslim physician, and Cyril Fielding, a headmaster of a small government-run school in Bihar in British India. Both men are cultured, sensitive, and intellectual, but as much goodwill toward each other as they possess, their relationship (both Platonic and in its homosexual undertones) is continually fractured by the stresses that divide the society of British India: imperialism, class, caste, religion, and so on. Its ending is, deservedly, one of the most famous passages in English literature. Aziz says to Fielding:
“Down with the English anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty five-hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then” – he rode against him furiously – “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”
But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”
Forster did not write another novel for the rest of his life – nearly fifty years. It is clear why: A Passage to India, which shows the mess capitalism and imperialism makes of our personal lives, begs the question of tearing down “the temples, the tanks, the jails, the palaces” that divide Aziz from Fielding. That Forster never took the next step of calling for the aboliton of the system does not detract at all from the greatness of his final novel.
The second writer at the origins of the postcolonial trajectory is James Joyce. Instead of discussing final lines as above, here the beginning lines are the most appropriate:
There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.
Father Flynn, the object of this mediation at the opening of the short story “Sisters” (the first in the collection Dubliners) is paralyzed by the stroke he eventually dies of. But by the end of “Sisters,” it is no longer so clear. “It was that chalice he broke,” the young narrator overhears the priest’s mourning sister say:
“That was the beginning of it. Of course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing, I mean. But still…. They say it was the boy’s fault. But poor James was so nervous, God be merciful to him!”
“That affected his mind,” she said. “After that he began to mope by himself, talking to no one and wandering about by himself. So one night he was wanted for to go on a call and they couldn’t find him anywhere. They looked high up and low down; and still they couldn’t see a sight of him anywhere. So then the clerk suggested to try the chapel. So then they got the keys and opened the chapel and the clerk and Father O’Rourke and another priest that was there brought in a light for to look for him…. And what do you think but there he was, sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself?”
The chalice that Father Flynn has knocked over is one containing the communion wine – the literal transubstantiated blood of Christ. After this event is when the priest begins to “go funny.” The paralysis affecting him is metaphorical as well as literal – it is the paralysis imposed over the Irish nation by the mutually reinforcing grip of British rule and the Catholic faith.
The word paralysis used by the young narrator functions as a keystone to this story and to the rest of the stories in this book – in my opinion, the greatest story collection in the English language. Joyce brilliantly explores the paralyzed condition of the Irish in the suceeding stories. In “Araby,” an adolescent boy goes to buy a present for a girl who he likes at the exotic appearaing Araby shops, only to have his dream of exotic wonder dissolve into the same old dreary, dull, colonized Ireland. In “The Boarding House,” a fervently Catholic young man is trapped by his landlord into a marriage with her daughter. In “A Little Cloud,” a new father is unable to break beyond the dull life of his wife and baby and dead-end clerical job into the future he dreams for himself as a writer in London – but, as we soon realize, his dreams of gaining fame as a “poet of the melancholy Gaelic school” are so much exoticization of his own people for the consumption of the oppressor. In so many ways are the Irish held paralyzed both by British rule and their own traditions.
And so without further stalling for time, I come to Junot Diaz’ latest work, a collection of short stories entitled This Is How You Lose Her. I made short work of this book several weeks ago, and have been delaying posting my reflections on it. In part this is because I found myself – who could not – at least a little disappointed after reading Diaz’ last book, the wonderful, Pulitzer-Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In another part, this is because the stories are deceptively simple, and required some time to stew in the mind.
The nine stories contained in This is How You Lose Her, or all but one at least, deal with the youth of the protagonist Yunior, our narrator from Oscar Wao. Like that novel, they might form together the bildung of Yunior, where in the novel his friend Oscar was the subject of the bildung. Oscar Wao, as I have written elsewhere, was in part such a triumph because of the deep counterposition between Yunior – the Dominican sucio who let his cock do the thinking in nearly all matters of importance, thus conforming to the hyper-masculine culture of the Dominican Republic under American colonization and the client regime of Rafael Trujillo – and Oscar, the overweight, scifi and fantasy obsessed ghetto nerd who makes his own way to love, thus destabilizing all notions of what it “means” to be Dominican.
Most of these stories expand on what Diaz started exploring in Oscar Wao – the obscene destruction that traditions of the colonized D.R., both at home and the diaspora in the United States visits on the personal relationships of individual Dominicans. We might remember how Yunior desperately desires a stable relationship with Oscar’s beautiful sister Lola, but despite himself cannot stop cheating on her. In many of these stories, we find the same sex-obsessed sucio we met earlier. The opening lines of the first story – “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” provides a typical example:
I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds – defensive, unscrupulous – but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out about it because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.
We learn elsewhere that this compulsive cheating, constant stepping out on one’s partner no matter how much they love her is merely a fact of Yunior’s life. “Es verdad que tu hijo taba rapando una vieja?” a girlfriend asks his mother in the story “Miss Lora,” which details his youthful affair with a plain middle-aged librarian. “He’s just like his father and brother… Dominican men,” his mother replies, shaking her head in disgust.
Not only is this cheating normalized and to a certain extent expected from men like Yunior, it often becomes as much about the performance of the male role as it is about the sex. In “Alma,” Yunior’s girlfriend finds out about his cheating with a South Asian girl by the meticulous records of it he kept in his diary – as if he did not expect her to look through it at some point. Similarly with his constant stepping out in the last story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” in which he is simply unable to stop himself from destroying a deep, committed relationship and spends the next five years trying to get over it in increasingly desperate ways and with increasingly destructive women. He writes in the second person here, the anguished chronicler of his younger self’s mistakes:
It takes a while. You see the tall girl. You go see more doctors. And then one June night you scribble the ex’s name and: The half-life of love is forever.
Such a beautiful line. Because, for all Yunior’s bluster, these stories are not just about the cheating. Though it is foregrounded, cheating is only one of the ways “how we lose her” (or him, for that matter). It is an act that covers over the experience of searing dislocation in modern life, the space that divides the selfish ways we act, constrained by an alienating system of production and the traditions of our cultures, from the romantic relationships in which we are somehow supposed to act completely selflessly. The cheating is how Yunior acts out his inability to fully love, committ, and give himself to another – a predicament that we have all found ourselves in.
A final note, then, on a personal matter. About a year ago, my then-girlfriend of three years and I decided to get engaged. We had had many problems in our relationship, which are not worth going into, but had resolved them and were sure we would spend the rest of our lives together. In January of this year, she asked from some time apart from me, which led to the devestating conclusion of a relationship I felt I had fully invested myself in. It is this that is the reason for the long absence from blogging I took from January to June of this year, and this that I have tried to understand, in a somewhat oblique and academic fashion, here through reading Forster, Joyce and Diaz. Had I the choice to do it over again, I would gladly get engaged to her a second time, as much pain as it caused me. Maria. “The half-life of love is forever.”