Monday, January 22, 2007

Traumatic Displacements in Mahasweta Devi's "Pterodactyl..."

Anyone who's read more than a couple posts here knows I love to quote passages from the works I'm writing on. So you'll be as surprised as I was to find out I included no long passages and barely any quotations from Marshall or Devi in my Hawaii talk, (which is still in non-.pdf format due to connection problems at the office and may not be ready in time for Saturday, even). You'll also probably be as surprised to find out that I had pegged the conference, the audience, and even the behavior of the first two speakers to a frightening degree and so made excellent choices as to what to shoot for (leave them wanting to read the two works at the end of the talk and get into debates over trauma/witnessing/testimony and melancholia/mourning on their own) and what to leave out (not just quotations but clever takes on details from the works and theories no one who hasn't read them carefully or recently would understand, much less appreciate, without far more set-up and explanation than it'd be worth it give). So it was a talk that specialists would likely be as impatient with as I am, but perfectly fine for the occasion, nevertheless. (Plus my mom [a teacher] and dad [a philosophy professor] were able to attend the talk and really liked it, not to mention that my rock star friend intimated he would give Marshall's novel another chance. Woo!)

The quotations and similarities handouts didn't go over as well, at least in the way I envisioned. I hoped and asked that people read and listen as close to simultaneously as they could, but they didn't seem to be doing much reading. At least they took the handouts with them when they left and maybe actually read them on their own (perhaps on the beach!).

So where is this going? Well, I just wanted to do a quick close read of two of the passages from my Devi handout here today, b/c those emails to students don't just write themselves, you know.

--What did Surajpratap write?
--Nothing but a story.
--That was nothing but a story?
--How do I explain? Starvation for years. Fewer children are being born to them, and the administration still doesn't attach any importance to Pirtha. They have taken it for granted for some time that the government has given them up. Now how will they explain to themselves the reason for this misfortune? Whatever the case, they need an explanation if only for their peace of mind. So they are spreading stories.

Now the SDO begins to speak in bursts. As if a badly wounded person is making a last-ditch effort to make a deposition to hospital or police, to the killers or to friends. Like that man from Chitowra.... The SDO is talking like that man. He is moving his hands, trying to explain, as if there's a tremendous communication gap between him and Puran, a tremendous (mental and linguistic) suspension of contact. Are the two placed on two islands and is one not understanding the most urgent message of the other, speaking with vivid gestures on a seashore? This asymptote is a contemporary contagion.

The primary speaker in both is the SDO, a mid-level government official who's trying to convince our protagonist, Puran Sahay, a radical journalist, to investigate the drought-induced famine conditions in Pirtha and write an expose about the national government's failure to declare it a famine region. Both passages revolve around the sighting of a pterodactyl by one of the Nagesia people in Pirtha; the second passage reveals the distanced, patronizing tone of the amateur anthropologist to be a defense against the truly traumatizing nature of even a second-hand witnessing of the pterodactyl. Surajpratap, who's referred to in the first passage, is another radical journalist, a Dalit activist, who preceded Puran to Pirtha and wrote a report that focused so much on the sighting of the pterodactyl that the SDO suppressed it (we later find out Surajpratap has had a breakdown and has disappeared). Puran's witnessing the pterodactyl itself and his decision not to try to offer any direct testimony to this experience is set against both the SDO's and Surajpratap's reactions, just as the report he does eventually write is set against the "nothing but a story" that is "Pterdactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha" itself.

And in one sense, it is nothing but a story, for the pterodactyl, the interpretation of it by the Nagesia people in the story as "the ancestral soul," the Nagesia youth Bikhia's "new myth" about it, and indeed all place names in the story are either outright inventions by the author or not to be taken literally, according to both an author's note appended to the end of the story and to the author herself in an interview with her translator, Gayatri Spivak.

But in another sense, as Spivak rightly underscores in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (I include the amazon link rather than the Harvard UP one b/c amazon allows you to browse the book), we should take note of Devi's repeated insistence in Imaginary Maps that when her story is most fictional, it aims to be the most testimonial.

What is she getting at? I think it has something to do with the impossibility and inescapability of testimony to a traumatic experience--the asymptotic communication gap that Puran, in the free indirect discourse of the second passage, comments on in almost as distanced and clinical a way as the SDO's anthropological cliches in the first, is something he experiences himself in Pirtha, with both the pterodactyl and with Bikhia. The silences in his report are a kind of testimony to that gap. But the larger story itself, in its style and structure, attempts a different sort of testimony and a different understanding of both myths and stories.

But that's a story for another post.

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