A Re-Imagined Community?
When considered against the background of nationalism, narratives tend to be interpreted as supportive of its cause, as critical of it, or as exhibiting at least a suspicion of its operation. The reading of Little Mountain and Midnight’s Children offered here aims to transcend this line of interpretation for the sake of proposing an analysis that would not be persuaded into accepting the text’s discursive pronouncements. This analysis underscores the danger which lies in those instances where the seemingly critical discourse coincides with a structure that has the capacity to undermine silently what could rightly appear as critical discourse.
As an example of this structural capacity to undermine critical discourse, I want to consider the narrative of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. In “Saleem Fathered by Oskar”, Patricia Merivale compares the literary strategies of Midnight’s Children and The Tin Drum. After enumerating the considerable overlap of literary strategies in the two novels, Merivale alludes to what I find to be the most decisive overlap: “the ‘literal’ connections between the heroes and history are deliberately strained” (18). “Both Grass’s and Rushdie’s heroes,” she says, “are… ‘handcuffed to history,’ obliged to bear witness to their times, ‘with no getting away from the date’ for either of them. Year by year, event by event, the ‘times’ build up their selves as well as their stories” (6).
They both “retreat, at thirty, to ‘the fringes’ of life, an insane asylum and a pickle factory” (Merivale 8). The narrator’s retreat is an essential structural element in both novels. Writing the narrative from this vantage point gives the narrator the prerogative to rearrange narrative discourse in such a way as to add a critical shade of meaning: to mount a structural form of resistance in the face of nationalism’s logic of identity. In both novels, the retreat becomes the site at which the binding of the nation and the narrative’s central figure is structurally unraveled.
In “A Different Drummer,” Carol Hall describes a crucial difference between Grass’s novel and its film adaptation:
In Günter Grass’s novel, Oskar, the thirty-year-old narrator, retells his picaresque tale of anti-development from the scrubbed bed of a mental hospital. In the film, the offscreen child-voice of Oskar takes us episodically and in chronological order from the conception of his mother to his twentieth year. The decision to relinquish the perspective of the omniscient, older Oskar was central to Schlöndorff’s vision of the film as a whole. (237)
This transformation results in a narrative which leaves the bond between character and nation intact. In both film and novel, Oskar’s stunted growth serves as an important narrative mechanism. Oskar ceases to grow with the rise of National Socialism and resumes right after the end of the war. The novel’s third part, removed in its entirety from the film version, undertakes the crucial step of unraveling the bond made so explicit in the connection between the personal and the national. Made through critical plot points, this connection remains intact in the film as the narrative concludes with the fall of National Socialism and the resumption of Oskar’s growth. As such, the end result is a narrative whose discourse condemns National Socialism but maintains Oskar’s visceral bond to the German nation as such.
It is essential to recognize that the logic of nationalism is reliant on a law of representation, which, though drawing on discursive elements, is ultimately guided by a binding structural procedure. Because this is an essentially modern structural procedure governing identification between the one and the many, the distinctive tackling of national identity in Little Mountain and Midnight’s Children is not merely an exercise in “identity politics.” It represents, instead, an assessment of the fundamental forces of similitude and difference—it lays bare the inherent split (difference) at the heart of nationalism’s incessant drive for similitude. Their critique of national identity gains its momentum by allowing difference to reclaim its rightful space. Highlighting the fundamental split of difference at the heart of national identity—exposing the weakness of similitude—constitutes the core of the process which organically develops the uneasiness about identity as similarity.
Posing the right question about nationalism’s function in the time to come does not require an investigation as to whether national identity happens to be genuine, a pure construct, or even imagined. Instead, the right question involves inquiring as to whether or not national identity should be imagined without annulling the difference at its heart. This is not so much the promise of re-imagining a new national community. It is, rather, a more modest promise of reassessing the national community itself. What the narratives analyzed in this study do is take apart the elemental building blocks of national identity which was developed in line with the model of similitude—the old Platonic paradigm of model and copy. In doing so they express the possibility of interrogating nothing less than the most formidable pattern of identification to which modernity has given rise. These narratives remind us that the identity of modernity is always an “other,” a difference aware of its being such.
On the theoretical level, this identity may be described as identity set against itself. This theoretical formula is translated in Little Mountain in the form of a fragmented narrative set against its own primeval desire to unfold, with its forward movement repeatedly stunted by the unbearable burden of repetition. In Midnight’s Children, it is translated in the form of a narrative that undoes its own efforts to produce the meaning it hopelessly desires to produce—its primeval desire to be a “proper” national narrative.
National identity, in the final analysis, amounts to more than a deformed child of political discourse. Given that the seeds of doubt about national identity already exist at its very core, it is far more forceful to create the condition within which the seeds of difference could grow rather than expect discursive attacks would achieve what they are ultimately incapable of achieving.
Grass, Günter. The Tin Drum. Trans. Breon Mitchell. New York: Mariner Books, 2010.
Hall, Carol. “A Different Drummer: The Tin Drummer Film and Novel.” Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 18, No. 4 (October 1990). 236-244.
Khoury, Elias. Little Mountain. Trans. Maia Tabet. New York: Picador, 2007.
Merivale, Patricia. “Saleem Fathered by Oskar: Intertextual Strategies in Midnight’s Children and The Tin Drum.” Ariel. 21:3 (July 1990). 5-21.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1997.
The Tin Drum. Dir. Volker Schlöndorff. The Criterion Collection, 1979.
Karim’s dissertation, “In the Thick of National Consciousness: Difference and the Critique of Identity in Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children”, is available for viewing and download at Scholarship@Western. The recommended citation for his dissertation is as follows:
Abuawad, Karim, “In the Thick of National Consciousness: Difference and the Critique of Identity in Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children” (2015). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. Paper 3008. http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/3008