Turn it all "About"
- W. H. New (Author)
Grandchild of Empire: About Irony, Mainly in the Commonwealth. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gary Boire
Delivered originally as the 2002 Garnett Sedgewick Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia, Grandchild of Empire is a short autobiographical meditation “about” irony as it is deployed in examples taken mainly from the literatures of Canada, Australia, India, the Caribbean and Africa. The operative word here is “about,” for as New explains in the first of his nine sections, the lecture “is a critical exercise not just in examining inheritance and imitation but also in the art of indirection . . . . About: from OE onbutan, “on the outside.” What follows is a series of insightful observations about specific examples of postcolonial irony, coupled with intellectual forays into colonial social history, literary and cultural theory, topics such as exile, alienation and identity, as well as a number of comic autobiographical digressions concerning New’s father (a witty patriarch in his own right). The result is a small gem of a book that provides much upon which to meditate and debate.
One of New’s more interesting strengths is his ability to enact what he praises most strongly; throughout his entire argument he deftly synthesizes his many critical and theoretical inheritances without ever dwindling into an unquestioning imitation or repetition. New is never so quixotic as to attempt an unprecedented definition of irony; rather, he obliquely consolidates what have become the many truisms concerning its strategies and then, with admirable aplomb, applies the arising theory to examples taken from Pope Alexander VI through Kipling and Bronte, to Atwood and Ihimaera. His argument retraces the many contours of irony as a disruptive force; an anti-authoritarian form of discursive resistance; a way of saying two things at once; a method of indirection; “a weapon in the arsenal of change” and so on.
New’s use of such truisms valuably teases out some fairly sinewy truths within the truisms; to wit: that irony simultaneously functions as a resistant voice as well as “a covert affirmation of some of the intricate ways in which the generations of Empire and Independence relate”; and the idea that “irony often means saying what you mean at a slant . . . . oversetting: so that a reader might hear (through the performance of a given set of words) not only their split levels of implication but also the divergent relation between an apparent surface intent and an often political undertow.” With this kind of razor-sharp distinction New delivers a series of astute readings of literary examples from across the commonwealth–readings which convincingly reveal that postcolonial irony can often be “a route towards self-esteem.” In short, irony demystifies ideology and, as such, creates power/knowledge: the indirect “slow work of attitidunal reform.”
Another of New’s many strengths is his ability to pressurize a point, to beg a question which is then left to his readers to wrestle with on their own. For example: there is a question that floats about the entire enterprise, a niggling question which is, perhaps, not this little book’s job to answer. But New begs that it be asked when he remarks that “there remains a connection between political ends and literary techniques . . .the rhetoric of literary protest can resonate beyond the specific circumstances to which it refers.” I think I disagree “about” the trajectory of this resonance for I cannot share the optimistic faith that literary publications effect any positive material changes in the social and political realms. To put the question more bluntly (as did an anonymous spectator years ago at an ACCUTE conference in Victoria), who can afford irony? Who actually benefits in a material way from a writer’s use of irony? The majority of the oppressed or the writer him or herself, the publisher, the academic industry, advertisers, pulp mills, ink salesman and printers?
As New rightly points out, to be effective irony “depends upon context and shared knowledge.” A crucial part of that shared knowledge is the ability to read and write; because if you cannot read you cannot possibly benefit from the pyrotechnical ironic brilliance of Walcott, Selvon, Lamming, Ghose–whoever. The question is: how does a literary protest–which may be read by a minuscule percentage of the earth’s population–“resonate beyond the specific circumstances to which it refers?” Is it rather not so much that irony liberates, but that the social freedom afforded by publishing royalties permits a writer like Achebe to participate materially in truly liberating political action? Perhaps the connection that New speaks of has a third term–that there is a connection, not between, but among literary protest, publication, money and social capital, international elitist recognition, fundraising, mobilization and, finally, material political achievement at the micro level.
Make no mistake. Grandchild of Empire is no elitist fluff; it is, quite the contrary, a charming, witty, accessible and intelligent book that shares its insights (and teaches its lessons) to both professionals and students alike. The book contains a wealth of information about irony, about colonial history and, finally, “about” the postcolonial relationship that exists between the two. That it can inspire precisely the debate I have proposed is a mark of its integrity, strength and intellectual challenge.
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MLA: Boire, Gary. Turn it all "About". canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 162 - 164)
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