Maryam Fatima


Partitions and Palimpsests: Longue Durée Aesthetics and the Challenge of Postcolonial Theory


In 1983, Pakistani writer, Intizar Hussain, was asked why he preferred to frame his novelistic writing in Urdu through the epistemological schema of dastans.[1] Without much hesitation, Husain responded that the concept of life and universe that was integral to “our” consciousness could not be expressed through the novel or the short story. Lest his provocative use of “our” be mistaken for parochial nativism, Husain added that “these genres took shape within the world-view which emerged in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and which gave them the particular form in which they were transmitted to us. Along with these genres we adopted the concept of reality which was prevalent in Europe at that time.”[2]

The rhetoric of “us” and “them” was a deliberate move on Husain’s part to urge his readers to consider the epistemologically violent history of the arrival of the novel in South Asia. Genres are historical, emerging through a dialectical relationship with the specificities of a political moment but as Peter Hitchcock reminds us, not always under circumstances “of their own choosing.”[3] They accrue further signification when they move across time and space, gathering the sediments of these histories of movement. However, as “ways of seeing and structuring the world,”[4] they are specific to their originary moment, even if effective at maintaining a veneer of universality. Responding to this perennial ethico-literary conundrum that postcolonial writers, who exist in an a priori relationship with the novel, find themselves in, Husain has crafted a dissonant poetics: writing texts that are not entirely novels but not quite dastans either.

This dissonance is a productive space from which to rethink the limiting categorization of multigeneric texts through the overdetermined conceptualizations of genre that go unchallenged in most fields of literary analysis including postcolonial studies. Postcolonial writers have long been creating “transgressive” texts that move across time, space, and genres to stage anxieties about democratic aspirations, territorial affiliation, and national literature. However, the relative under-theorization of genre as it pertains to vernacular writing has unfortunately led to perfunctory readings or in certain cases, misreading. More recent conversations in the field have underscored this incongruity between fiction from the global south and theory, developed largely through a singular focus on an Anglophone and Francophone corpus, and preoccupied with the thematic in line with Jameson’s model of national allegory.[5] Of postcolonial theory’s many sins of omission, this paper contends with this very inattentiveness to questions of genre and form.

The Novels

As a project that is rooted in challenging how non-European narrative genres (especially in the 20th and 21st centuries) have been studied within the reductive frames of Eurocentric theories of genre and the novel, my paper turns to two writers, Intizar Husain (Pakistan) and Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) to propose a palimpsestic mode of reading that addresses these challenges. I read their multigeneric works through a palimpsestic lens, focusing on how traces of precolonial genres and narrative modes are layered in putatively modern forms (novels, short stories, etc). And how the long history that this invokes resists colonial and nationalist amnesias whereby shared literary and cultural histories are sequestered according to national borders. This paper then, explores how postcolonial authors draw on a longue durée generic memory of articulating territorial affiliation to contend with the vicissitudes of partition and its concomitant processes such as border-making, displacement and exile, linguistic minoritization, and parochial nationalisms.

I develop the framework of a “generic palimpsest” through a close reading of Husain and Mahfouz’s fiction as one way of responding to the calls for reorienting the field of postcolonialism by engaging with poetics in a rigorous manner (Hitchcock 2003, Combe 2011, Hawley 2016). The first part of the essay focusses on literary responses to South Asian partitions: India and Pakistan in 1947 and Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971. In order to understand how this event fundamentally reshaped poetics in the subcontinent’s languages (focusing on Urdu) as writers contended with violent border-making and displacement and their implications for the largely syncretic cultures of the subcontinent’s many communities and ethnicities, I turn to the work of Intizar’s Husain. As a migrant to the newly created state of Pakistan from India in 1947, Husain’s writings challenge the partitioning of “Indian” and “Pakistani” as separate literary and cultural heritage. I focus particularly on his 1979 novel, Basti. Published after a second (violent) partition in the subcontinent (the creation of Bangladesh in 1971), further intensifies the question of partitioning shared cultural and literary spaces according to national borders. Like his other works, in this novel too, Husain comprehends a political present through a past, drawing on several different poetic and narrative genres in Urdu-Hindi, Sanskrit, and Indo-Persian that have been used in different historical moments to articulate territorial affiliation in the subcontinent. The protagonist of the novel, and its partial narrator, Zakir, whose name translates as one who remembers or narrates, is posited at the fulcrum of this remembering. As he wanders through an unnamed war-ravaged city (presumably Lahore) during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, he invokes the poetics of the Indo-Persian shahr-e ashob poetry (lament for the city), Sanskritic epics like The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, as well as poets and writers of the Indian soldiers’ 1857 revolt against the British East India Company. I argue that Husain’s use of precolonial genres, gleaned through the texture of Zakir’s remembering, presents a longue durée cultural memory of the space of the two countries that cannot be contained within national borders.

In the second half of the paper, I turn to Naguib Mahfouz’s 1983 novel, Rihlat ibn Fattouma, to examine a similar longue durée poetics in which modern statehood and border-making is sought to be understood by layering those precolonial genres that have been historically employed to engage with the relationship between communities and geographical space. In this novel that is not ostensibly anchored in any temporal and geographical specificities, the protagonist, Qindil ibn Fattouma, a denizen of Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam), sets out in search of Dar al-Gebel (Abode of Mountain), a utopian land, in order to find a remedy for his ailing motherland. He moves through various other lands, allegorically representing different styles of governance, Dar al-Mashriq, Dar al-Haira, Dar al-Halba, Dar al-Aman, and Dar al-Ghuroub, mirroring the precolonial rihla, the Arabic travel writing genre, the most example of which is Ibn Battouta’s fourteenth century travelogue. The rihla is a fertile generic space through which “complex connections among travel, theory, and knowledge rarely developed outside of the confines of Euro-American political thought”[6] can be mapped. While in its precolonial iterations, the genre tends to focus largely on the refinement and edification of the individual traveler, in Mahfouz’s refashioning, it accrues the additional task of finding an ideal form of governance. As I demonstrate in this section, Mahfouz’s layering of this genre in his novel is located in a post-1967 questioning of the legacies of Arab nationalism.

As Qindil moves through the different lands, the narrative emplots historical and political shifts through a putatively linear temporal movement, staging the different political systems as various historical moments. Through all these political imaginaries, the novel navigates its contemporaneous politics. Published in the post-1967 context, Qindil’s comparative endeavor has larger significance for Arab nationalism and collective identity. Referring to the moment after 1948 and after 1967 as shaping an intelligible historical period for novelistic imagination in Arabic, Edward Said notes that in crafting a political present, Arab writers were waging “a battle of restoring historical continuity, healing a rupture, and – most important – forging a historical possibility” which entailed “more intense focus upon the distinctions between the varieties of Arab experience” (Reflections on Exile 48-58). Almost as if towards this end, the novel also emerges as a palimpsest of different temporalities: There are two temporal movements in the novel: a cyclical movement of unrequited loves that propels the linear movement of the protagonist’s travels; and the movement from the Land of Mashriq (East) to Ghuroub (West) at the end, indicating a daily cycle. Reading these in conjunction with two external temporalities that Said has identified as shaping Arab novelistic imagination: a temporality of rupture (decolonization) and a restorative temporality in which narrative becomes a site of historical possibility, we can see how the palimpsest (of genres and temporalities) allows Mahfouz to reflect on the literary and political genealogies of the nation.

Theoretical Implications

I choose these particular novels as they are symptomatic of the kind of vernacular writing that spills at national and generic borders, challenging the very stability of these conceptualizations. To read them scrupulously and outside the limiting theorizations of “novel” studies and “national” or “postcolonial” literature, I propose the palimpsest as both a metaphor and methodology, necessitating responsiveness to how texts theorize themselves, letting the “genre code” emerge from close reading rather than predetermining it. In the final section of the paper, I will deliberate on the implications of my study for the proposed reorientation of postcolonialism through a longue durée perspective.

Postcolonial studies has been a largely contingent field, being constantly redefined through shifts in focus (decolonization, globalization, transnationalism), convergences and divergences with other axes of analysis (Marxist, feminist, cultural studies) as well as additions (different literary traditions, practices, and genres). Building on earlier theorizations of hybridity and métissage, the palimpsest, which originally describes a writing surface which in having been reused or altered still retains traces of its original, is invoked as a methodology according minute attention to the texture of the novels (generic codes, narrative figures, intertextuality) and their subsequent contextualization within the history that they reveal.[7] However, while all novelistic traditions across the world can be qualified as palimpsests of a number of different traditions, in the case of the novels I analyze, palimpsesting, invoked as a verb, refers to a radical poetics fostered by Husain to actively engage with the colonial legacies of the literary and political present. Borrowing from and expanding on Gérard Genette’s work on “palimpsestuous” texts,[8] Lene M. Johannessen reminds us that “by insisting on the contextual and multidirectional, postcolonial palimpsests summon from the depths of memory dialogues on routes and stories-so-far in one and the same account.”[9]

Following Lene M Johannessen who theorizes the postcolonial palimpsest as “narrative rehearsals” of literary routes and roots, I work closely with the texture of these novels, examining their layering of different genres, and the long precolonial history of interactions across Africa and Asia that they reveal and dramatize. However, while Genette is interested in the relationships forged by writers with the literary works that precede theirs in an open and porous textual universe, I am interested in the stakes of such palimpsesting for a world literary history, specifically the history and form of the modern novel in the global south. What separates palimpsest from other conceptualizations like “hybridity,” “bilangue” and “métissage” is its singular focus on demonstrating narrative accretions, in a sort of cross-section of sediments as it were, revealing the layers of genres and literary traditions in postcolonial literary formations. Unfortunately, none of these approaches attend to the historicity of genres. As mentioned earlier, genres tend to have an aura of universality which veils the context of their emergence and dissemination must be unearthed through textual and contextual analysis. The palimpsest allows for this through its deep historical sense of the putative hierarchies of genres in the formation of modern literary forms, especially in the global south through colonial structures of dominance.

Furthermore, inasmuch as the palimpsestic framework of analysis that I am proposing in this paper challenges generic boundaries, there is also an inherent longue durée challenging of the temporal ambit of postcolonialism. As Hitchcock persuasively argues understanding the longue durée perspective on “postcoloniality as (classification) struggle” entails not just “mixing genres” but also “problematizing the logic of classification itself” (301). This methodology is not mere abstraction devoid of social consciousness but an attempt to “foreground that the classificatory zeal that attends postcoloniality is also embedded and signifies a category crisis deeply consonant with the logic and process of social change” (301). The question of how can postcolonial methodology account for that which predates it accrues urgency then. We must ask: what is the relationship of the “past” in the “post”?

[1] Oral storytelling tradition of chivalric romances that flourished in the Indian subcontinent roughly around the fifteenth and sixteenth century. The practice continued well into the nineteenth century but was dismissed as frivolous by literary reform movements like the Aligarh School who sought to align Urdu literature with Victorian sensibilities.

[2] “A Conversation between Intizar Husain and Muhammad Umar Memon.” Journal of South Asian Literature 18.2 (1983): 153-86.

[3] Hitchcock, Peter. “The Genre of Postcoloniality.” New Literary History 34.2 (2003): 299-330.

[4] Johannessen, Lene M. “Postcolonial Palimpsest: Hybridity and Writing.” Cambridge History of Postcolonial Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[5] Similar concerns regarding the predominance of “theme” at the cost of “form” can be glimpsed through Vilashini Coopan’s reservations regarding the inclusion of postcolonial theory within the field of comparative literature that was seemingly making the discipline “less literary” and “more instrumental.”

[6] Euben, Roxanne Leslie. Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

[7] It can also be thought as a framing metaphor describing the horizontal (North-South) and vertical (South-South) influences that undergird poetics in the postcolonial novel. Within a comparative framework this metaphor is useful in excavating a long interacting history of cultural and literary exchange across Asia and Africa (and eventually, Europe in a much more active way from the eighteenth century onward).

[8] Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

[9] I would like to stress the distinction here between texts as “palimpsestuous” and my reading methodology as “palimpsestic.”