Kroetsch and Bakhtin

  • B. Hariharan
    The Carnival World of Robert Kroetsch. Creative
Reviewed by Joel Deshaye

This book is about the novels of Robert Kroetsch as they relate to Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptions of the carnival and dialogism. B. Hariharan’s method is to interpret Kroetsch’s style of postmodernism and its puns, substitutions, and reversals. The main contribution of the book is to extend Dale Bauer’s feminist critique of Bakhtin’s theories to Kroetsch’s novels, which, in Hariharan’s view, help to correct Bakhtin’s omissions by demonstrating the compatibility of feminism with dialogism.

Hariharan asserts that The Carnival World of Robert Kroetsch has a different purpose, which is to define through Kroetsch what comes after postmodernism: “To understand what might come next, to look beyond the fashion and the language of a particular period, we need to be equipped with a more comprehensive ‘story grammar’” (13). Hariharan does little to explain this usage of grammar or how it might explain what comes after postmodernism at the levels of narrative or individual words.

The feast of language is . . . a confusion of tongues. In other words, body regenerates both language and story and, at the same time, language is returned to the body. . . . A “grammar” of puns, jokes, and wordplay thus exposes the underlying function of the “bawdy” in carnival by showing how the body is necessary to a regeneration of the spirit. (17)

If Hariharan means to answer his question of “what might come next” with his many statements of this kind, then I would argue that the puns, substitutions, and reversals he observes and extends are aspects of postmodernism and other period styles, not a new phase in the development of modern writing.

After introducing his main concerns, Hariharan devotes the majority of the next chapter to his reading of other critics. It serves as a literature review but shows how few of his sources date from the 1990s and 2000s. For a book published in 2012 The Carnival World of Robert Kroetsch has few contemporary references.

The remaining chapters are thematic readings of Kroetsch’s novels that might have been easier to follow had they included more introductory and transitional sections. Using keywords of structuralism, Hariharan claims that his book “attempts a synchronic description in each chapter of parts of the system peculiar to all of [Kroetsch’s] novels, as well as a diachronic description of the evolution of these elements” (16). But the emphasis is much more “synchronic” than “diachronic” even though a more diachronic analysis could provide a line of argument that would show the development of Kroetsch’s work and might even lead to a plausible theory of what might come after it.

Given its synchronicity, perhaps not surprisingly Hariharan’s book depends on metaphoric writing about language. Hariharan frequently personifies his writing so that it has the desire of and for a body. Only on page 79 does he finally admit: “But surely this is to speak metaphorically. The only bodily form that the word can literally take is that of the text. So language merely appears to perform in bodily ways.” But after this statement he immediately returns to his personifications, without further remark on the limitations or advantages of ideas that metaphor can generate.

Ultimately, Hariharan suggests that “Kroetsch engenders in his heteroglot discourse a potentially feminist perception of the word and a world transformed through art” (176). This is when he is saying what not enough others are saying. Concerned with showing Derridian “hostipitality” here, I am nevertheless glad to get a book from a distant foreign press by an author who attests to the significance of Canadian studies abroad even when the field has lost many of its resources to our federal reallocations.

This review “Kroetsch and Bakhtin” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 166-67.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.