Renegotiating the Peaceable Kingdom
- Gabriele Helms (Author)
Challenging Canada: Dialogism and Narrative Techniques in Canadian Novels. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gordon Bölling
When Julia Kristeva, Tzvetan Todorov, and other literary theoreticians introduced the writings of Mikhail M. Bakhtin to Western readers in the 1970s they could not have foreseen just how influential the ideas of the Russian critic were very soon to become. The concepts of dialogism, the carnivalesque, heteroglossia, chronotope and other terms that are at the heart of Bakhtin’s theories of literature are now central to modern literary theory and a plethora of studies apply Bakhtin’s theoretical frameworks to literary texts; however, with the exception of a small number of articles, an in-depth analysis of Bakhtinian thought has so far been missing from the field of Canadian studies. This gap is now closed by Gabriele Helms’ outstanding contribution to Canadian literary criticism. In Challenging Canada: Dialogism and Narrative Techniques in Canadian Novels, Helms combines a critical reading of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism with the methodological framework of cultural narratology. At the center of the book are challenging interpretations of contemporary Canadian novels by Joy Kogawa, Sky Lee, Daphne Marlatt, Aritha van Herk, Jeanette Armstrong, Thomas King, and Margaret Sweatman.
Helms’ point of departure is the observation that numerous “contemporary Canadian novels call into question ideas of Canada as a benign and tolerant country, ‘a peaceable kingdom,’ a country without a history of oppression, violence, or discrimination.” Instead of defining Canada as a homogeneous entity, these recent novels participate in a form of nation-building that represents Canada as a “multifaceted” and often “ambivalent” construction. In her lucid introduction, Helms convincingly argues that “novels are not simply reflections of social attitudes, caught in a one-directional relationship; rather, novels themselves contribute significantly to cultural attitudes and references and thus help to consolidate social visions or encourage resistance.” Drawing on Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism, she explores how contemporary Canadian novels stage the interaction of a multiplicity of voices and how this plurality of discursive practices leads to multicentric and alternative literary constructions of Canada. In her readings of these texts as “resistance literature,” Helms supplements her critical engagement with Bakhtin’s theory of the novel with a narratological approach, an approach that is emphasized in her strategic use of the term “cultural narratology.” In its emphasis on the cultural embeddedness of narrative structures, a cultural narratology seeks to overcome the limitations of a more traditional analysis of narrative techniques: as Helms states, “The point is that, once narrative forms are seen as socially constructed, novels become valuable sources for cultural studies because their narrative forms provide information about ideological concepts and world views. Thus, the narratology conceptualized here is not an end in itself. In alliance with a cultural view, it enables us to identify and understand cultural experiences translated into, and meanings produced by, particular formal narrative practices.” Helms follows her introductory remarks with a chapter on Bakhtin’s theory of the novel and its reception by literary critics. This brief overview is to be commended for the clarity with which it outlines Helms’ understanding of Bakhtin’s key concepts. However, despite her enthusiasm for the work of Bakhtin, Helms always maintains a healthy critical distance, a distance that is conspicuously missing from many other publications on the Russian theoretician.
Helms begins her insightful analysis of dialogism in the contemporary Canadian novel by examining the reconstruction of family histories in Kogawa’s Obasan and Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe. Engaging in dialogic relations with a multiplicity of perspectives, both novels extensively reflect on the process of storifying histories. Obasan challenges the truth-claims of written documents on the treatment of Japanese Canadians during and after the Second World War. In contrast, in its retelling of the history of the Wong family, Lee’s novel focuses primarily on a multitude of oral narratives. As Helms argues, the use of dialogism is in both cases intricately linked to the respective concepts of history underlying these two novels. Whereas Obasan is to be read as a revisionist novel that nevertheless accepts the possibility of writing the true version of historical events, Disappearing Moon Cafe is informed by a pluralistic understanding of historical knowledge. In her discussions of Marlatt’s Ana Historic and van Herk’s Places Far from Ellesmere, Helms focuses on processes of un/reading: “Both texts challenge fixed categories of reality, fiction, genre, gender, sexuality, and social discourse, showing how they have determined representations of women in history and literature. In their attempt to cross established borders, they deconstruct naturalized categories and offer alternative constructions from new perspectives.” Reading these experimental novels through the lens of such Bakhtinian concepts as dialogism and the chronotope, Helms concludes that Marlatt as well as van Herk perform “double movements in which every un/reading becomes a new reading, every untelling a new telling.” Acts of re-reading and the search for alternative self-representations are also at the heart of Armstrong’s Slash and King’s Green Grass, Running Water. Both Aboriginal writers employ a variety of narrative strategies such as double-voicing and incorporating elements of oral storytelling to engage the reader dialogically. As Helms writes, “it is primarily the dialogism of these texts that counts on readers to be active in the process of locating choices beyond the familiar binaries and recognizing opportunities for Aboriginal self-determination.” In her reading of Sweatman’s fictionalized account of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, Helms stresses the aspect of the performative. As a polyphonic and hybrid historical novel, Fox “interrupts the pregiven, monumental narrative of the pedagogical by challenging its causality and monologism. In an open-ended, at times even careless, way the performative intervenes in the gaps, in the reaccentuations of incorporated genres, and speaks from in-between times and places.”
In her conclusion, Helms argues convincingly for the application of her methodological framework to the interpretation of additional novels such as Thomas Wharton’s Icefields and Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen. Rejecting Bakhtin’s pejorative views on poetry and drama, Helms further sketches the usefulness of dialogism in readings of Canadian verse, drama, and even cross-generic texts. Challenging Canada offers fascinating readings of Canadian fiction and is a significant contribution to the field of Bakhtinian studies.
- Re: Composing Biotexts by Guy Beauregard
Books reviewed: Writing the Roaming Subject: The Biotext in Canadian Literature by Joanne Saul and Diamond Grill by Fred Wah
- Just Before the Fall by H T
Books reviewed: Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell, The Girl from Chimel by Rigoberta Menchu, and The Red Sash by Jean E. Pendziwol
- Tales of the Seannachie by Dianne MacPhee
Books reviewed: No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod
- Abelard and Hell-Louise by Marta Dvorak
Books reviewed: The Romantic by Barbara Gowdy
- Canadian Theatre: Halcyon Days by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: A Fly on the Curtain by Fred Euringer
MLA: Bölling, Gordon. Renegotiating the Peaceable Kingdom. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 136 - 138)
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