Cross-Cultural Encounters in Joseph Conrad's Malay Fiction.
For the past several years, the Times Literary Supplement has advertised "The Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize," the winner being "the writer best able to describe a visit to a foreign place or people" and produce "the most acute and profound observation of a culture alien to the writer." How to represent a culture not one's own was once thought a fairly straightforward endeavor, but under the informing pressure of postcolonial theory that reminds us all of our own otherness and of the ways in which our own situatedness inevitably shapes what we see--no matter how objective and scientific our inquiry--it has become a charged issue. This study shows how cross-cultural encounters are always inflected by the previous textual knowledge brought to them, no matter their objective intentions. Robert Hampson argues that Conrad comes to his Malay fiction, Almayer's Folly through the late The Rescue, not only through personal experience but also via a textual tradition already firmly in place, a discourse Hampson refers to as "Writing Malaysia." Throughout this study, Hampson provides much evidence of Conrad's increasing awareness of the extent to which narratives generally, and this discourse in particular, have already shaped the subject at hand and the concomitant understanding of the difficulties inherent in the project of representing a culture not one's own.
Hampson argues that Conrad subverted those narratives that comprised "writing Malaysia" by presenting multiple voices and points of view that worked against the essentializing of so much writing about other cultures at the time. The multiple tellings help resist the major tenet Conrad challenged, that there is one true story about Malaysia, an essentializing de-historicized telling authorized by the European objective, even scientific, gaze. Conrad wrote within this already existing discourse but, as Hampson argues, against it as well, interrogating the shaping power of narrative and thus the problem of representation.
Part of Hampson's argument is that the network of narratives Conrad sailed into was heavily inflected with the scientific project that had accompanied, and actually justified, English expansion since at least Francis Bacon's The Advancement of Learning, in which the new world of learning was connected with the new world of voyages: "The global consciousness produced by the circumnavigation of the world prompted this anticipation of a panoptical view of the whole field of knowledge" (19). Thus chapter two focuses on Bacon's successors William Marsdan and Joseph Banks and the subsequent figures of Thomas Stamford Raffles, James Brooke, Alfred Wallace, Hugh Clifford, and Frank Swettenham, all of whom justified on scientific grounds their panoptical, totalizing view. Their narratives, expressions of Enlightenment views, in turn produced a knowledge that empowered and authorized British imperialism. While these early participants in "writing Malaysia" purported to objectively describe and scientifically codify all they saw, what they recorded was the product of their own desires. However, Hampson notices that both Clifford and Wallace initiated a questioning of "progress," and that indeed by the time Conrad started writing, "the Enlightenment project of mapping and describing was subverted by uncertainties and self-questioning: ideas of civilization and progress, Self and Other ... " (28).
Hampson reads Conrad's Malay fiction as the works of a modernist sceptical about the knowability of the world. For Conrad this also means the ultimate inability to fully represent the Other. It was Conrad's awareness that he came to the archipelago in the wake of others' stories about the place and its peoples, and thus it is the shaping power of narrative that leads him to foreground narrative, as one story among others. Hampson contends that part of Conrad's resistance is seen in his unwillingness to allow one story to sum everything up, rather he sets in motion competing stories that work to open up that European production of discourse to critique (128).
The New Historicist assumptions underlying this study are clearly on view in a particularly interesting chapter that takes on the "problems of historiography," and points up the ways in which Conrad used and subverted the discourse about Malaysia. Here Hampson questions the sources of "history" and notes the various indeterminacies that result from translations, transliteration, politically motivated points of view, and the complex situatedness of writing about Malaysia. Hampson argues that Conrad's Malay fictions attempt the same destabalizing of authoritative accounts of Euro-centric tellings by foregrounding the act of narration itself, both written and oral, which leads this study into productive explorations of gossip and hearsay, always rich informing contexts in Conrad's fiction. Thus in cross-cultural encounters a kind of ignorance on each side shaped by pre-existing narratives with their inevitable blind spots about the Other is stressed.
Conrad's rendering of cross-cultural encounters attempts in these ways and others to resist the ethnocentrism of most "writing Malaysia," Hampson contends. In Conrad's Malay novels and stories, subjectivities other than European are heard from, cultural misunderstandings within many groups are narrated, and cultural diversity and hybridity are foregrounded, not silenced. That very willingness to grant non-Europeans subjectivities and let the likes of Babalatchi and Mrs. Almayer speak revealed itself as a problem, Hampson asserts. Issues of appropriation and authenticity seem to have arisen for Conrad and, as Hampson argues, "after 'The Lagoon' and 'Karain', Conrad moved away from attempts to represent Malay realities to an engagement instead with the problematics of representing another culture, simultaneously using and problematising particular European modes of representation" (162). Hampson's analysis of The Rescue makes a compelling case for re-reading Conrad's long-delayed novel in this new light as "an escape from the mastering discourse of ethnographic representation" (163), and a more complex understanding of cross-cultural encounters.
Even though the new geography, as well as this study, has taught us that maps are texts in spite of their claimed objectivity and, like texts, need interpretation, the inclusion of a few would have been helpful here; similarly, a few of the illustrations mentioned would have supplemented the discussion in chapter two of the Marsden and Raffles texts nicely. That complaint aside, this study is well-researched and well-written and makes a valuable contribution to Conrad scholarship and to postcolonial studies as well. Hampson's extensive familiarity with the histories and geographies of Southeast Asia together with his knowledge of things Conradian allow him to productively engage the arguments of other important studies of Conrad's Malay fiction, among them Chris GoGwilt's The Invention of the West, Bruce Henricksen's Nomadic Voices, and Chris Bongie's Exotic Memories. This study makes good use of these and an array of other informing sources, many of them non-European.
ANDREA WHITE, California State University, Dominguez Hills