Can Europeans be eschewed?


Can Europeans be eschewed?

Can I possibly write an entire manuscript without referencing ‘the West' or drawing on the writers and thinkers who have shaped my intellectual development and literary journey, asks ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


I HAVE started work on a literary project that could take me up to a year to complete. I have planned it in such a way that there can be no obstacles or reason to abandon it — unless my health takes another beating. Over the past two or three years, I have had to abandon one important project because of the Covid pandemic and poor health.

While projects like this are usually difficult (the day-to-day process of putting down the 120,000 words of my doctoral dissertation was a burden like no other), there is an added burden to the current undertaking which stems from a single question, and which reveals the literary, intellectual and philosophical influences that have shaped me.

The question is this: can I possibly write an entire manuscript and not use the European world or “the West” as a reference, or draw on the writers and thinkers who have shaped my intellectual development and literary journey? On the face of it, the answer is no. The Europeans — cartographic Europe and its offshoots in North America, Australia and New Zealand, and pockets of South Africa and South America, notably in Argentina (where people consider themselves European) — shaped almost all my formal tertiary education. Intentionally shaking off these influences is like pulling teeth; replacing them with African, Asian, Indo-Pacific or Latin American references and ideas is even more difficult, mainly because of my own shortcomings.

Yet, this may not be as impossible a task as it would appear. The Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) pulled Latin American literature from its moorings in Europe and North America, and away from brilliant writers like James Joyce and Marcel Proust as reference points. With works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez introduced readers around the world to the land and legends of Latin America. He influenced other writers from the global south such as Salman Rushdie (once of India, then Britain, and later he wrapped himself in the flag of the United States) and Nigeria’s Ben Okri.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul

It’s important to present a nuanced view on writers of the global south; not all of them have sought to situate their work within their countries and societies of origin. One cannot expect that. For better or for worse, my own writings heavily reflect European intellectual influences.

The Trinidadian writer, VS Naipaul turned everything García Márquez achieved on its head with racist tropes about Africa (and India). In his book A Bend in the River, Naipaul caught the entire continent in the same Eurocentric gaze as a place of greed and backwardness, a place that lacked creativity and the ability to govern itself — and defended Western colonialism’s civilising missions. He once said, “Africa has no future”.

This is an echo of Hegel’s expressed belief that Africa is a place that is unhistorical, has an undeveloped spirit, and lacks morality, religions and political constitution.

Naipaul was a brilliant writer but a racist whose frames of reference were firmly planted in European imaginaries of the global south. He was especially scathing about Indians, and about Muslims and Islam, which endeared him to Islamophobes in the north. One critic remarked that Naipaul wrote scathingly about Muslims and Islam and was given a Noble prize for his efforts.

Horace Engdahl, Swedish literary historian and critic, who once headed the Swedish Academy, acknowledged that “the choice of Naipaul might be regarded as political in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States”.

Presaging the toxic rise of Narendra Modi’s Hindu extremism in India, Naipaul wrote in 1999: “Dangerous or not, Hindu militancy is a corrective to the history I have been talking about. It is a creative force and will be so. Islam can't reconcile with it.”

The British writer William Dalrymple, probably the finest European chronicler of the British Empire in India, said: “Naipaul’s entirely negative understanding of India’s Islamic history has its roots in the mainstream imperial historiography of Victorian Britain.” (See, The Criterion: An International Journal in English, April 2014, Volume 5, Issue 2)

Dalrymple is the standout example of a European who approaches the global south on its own terms and who does not shirk from the destruction and extraction of the British Raj and empires in general. (There was a brief moment, last year sometime as I was clearing out my shelves to donate books to a school, when I had more books by Dalrymple than by any other author. Strange moment it was.)

I guess what I am saying is that it is not easy — though it has been done quite successfully, I am sure — to avoid European influences in contemporary literature. In fact, almost everything I have written over, say, the past five years reflects the ways I have been influenced by Europeans, from Jean Paul Sartre to Leo Tolstoy. I make no apologies for that.

As I continue with this project, I am slightly intimidated but also excited about the way it will turn my world upside down, as it were. I am consoled by the words of the Persian poet, Shams of Tabriz (1185–1248): “Instead of resisting to changes, surrender. Let life be with you, not against you. If you think ‘My life will be upside down’ don’t worry. How do you know down is not better than upside?”

Just as I wrote that I realised that I was drawing, instinctively and appropriately, on a Persian poet and not the usual go-to of Europeans, and that I drew on poetry, a genre I have never been able to grasp. Much of my teens were spent at the feet of the South African poet Don Mattera. I learned a lot from him, my “streets-father”, but I was never able to understand poetry, other than a few passages that “make sense”. I am not impressed by the misty-eyed and romantic lines of Jalaluddin Rumi. Besides, they came to remind me of one of the most devious and deceitful people I have had the displeasure of working with, and who, whenever there was a crisis, a real crisis, would recite a Rumi poem and expect everything to be “all right”. This is generally what I think as “the usefulness of poetry”.

There are, nonetheless, brief passages of poetry that make sense. For insights, I drift between Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse and Roy Campbell’s brief passage “On Some South African Novelists": “You praise the firm restraint with which they write — /I’m with you there, of course:/ They use the snaffle and the curb all right,/ But where's the bloody horse?”

And for comfort, I return almost always to Eugene Marais’ Winternag. My early education was fraught. There are few things I cling to and many more that I have simply forgotten. Winternag remains.

♦ VWB ♦

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