Trapped by Language: On Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land

 by Brian Kiteley

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If the brain, as We believe, is shaped by thoughts and not the other way around, then our own is composed of one nacreous coil, our thoughts sweeping upward under the influence of a lucent tide, the whole protected by a layering of scales.

—Rikki Ducornet, The Word "Desire"

Amitav Ghosh, a Hindu Indian raised in what was then largely Muslim Eastern Pakistan, born in Calcutta, educated at Oxford, sent for his anthropological field work to Muslim rural Egypt, and now a New Yorker who writes novels, is the ideal figure to usher in a new way of investigating the world.  Travel writing was, in European hands, always the second line of imperialism.  European travelers (as opposed, say, to Moslem travelers earlier) sent messages home of the superiority of home.  Early travelers were delighted and amazed.  Some wrote fantasies, in the style of Kinglake’s Eothen.  Many sought out the ever-receding untouched wilderness or culture. Twentieth century Western travel writing has generally told of short-term visits to places of strangeness, worlds new to Western eyes.  Jonathan Raban’s enjoyable Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth is as much about not getting a visa to Saudi Arabia as it is about the countries around the Arabian peninsula he did visit, and the trip he writes of in the book takes about three weeks.  Amitav Ghosh’s travel covers long periods of time, both in lived history and in human history. He is not a consumer of landscapes but someone who inhabits a place.  His first contact with Egypt was as a quiet young professional academic.  His later contacts were to re-establish relationships, to revive again what he’d seen and known.

Here is an example of an exchange between Ghosh and one of his subjects, a villager baffled by Ghosh’s lack of knowledge of Arabic words for sex and masturbation.  Ghosh’s neighbor asked him:

 "Of course you have circumcision where you come from, just like we do? Isn’t that so, mush kida?"
    I had long been dreading this line of questioning, knowing exactly where it would lead.
    "Some people do," I said.  "And some people don’t."
    "You mean," he said in rising disbelief, "there are some people in your country who are not circumcised?"
    In Arabic the word "circumcise" derives from a root that means "to purify": to say of someone that they are "uncircumcised" is more or less to call them impure.
    "Yes," I answered, "yes, many people in my country are 'impure.'"  I had no alternative; I was trapped by language.

Many a European or American anthropologist might utter the same thing herself or himself these days.  But Ghosh puts a different spin on this, by simple virtue of being who he is, from what language-family, from which continent.  His anthropology involves collisions Westerners are not used to seeing.  When he says he was "trapped by language," he does not mean, as an American might, that he is trapped in English.  He means that Arabic causes him to reflect helplessly on what he cannot be in any other language, to these people.  A larger meaning can also be drawn from this exchange.  Anthropology is impossible (Ghosh himself did not make a career of it).  Translation from one culture to another is a ridiculous act of fiction-making.  There is no way Ghosh can be anything but the baffling alien creature he is to these villagers, and in the end the villagers are ciphers to him.  Nevertheless, the book describes the true friendships he made in this village and the sense of loss Ghosh feels when he cannot find his old friends upon his return many years later.

Amitav Ghosh said he learned to write fiction by means of the process of keeping two notebooks of observations during his fieldwork in Egypt.  He spoke to a class of mine a few years ago and answered some question about the value of writing programs, saying that his anthropological field work was all the training in creative writing that he ever had.  One set of notes were for the official work he was doing, the doctoral thesis research; the other was personal, commentary on the struggles to make sense of things, but also overflowing with the material unsuited for the anthropology he was doing.  Ghosh said that the tension between these two notebooks made him realize some important lesson about writing generally.  I think it is fair to say that In an Antique Land is in some ways simply a record of that learning process for Ghosh, among other things.  You notice, as you read it, both the highly personal search into history he is doing—intimate historiography, in a sense—which also contains very sophisticated critiques of Western historiography.  At the same time Ghosh reveals his findings about the relatively unimportant (or a-historical) Hindu slave, he also revels in the casual demolition of the process of making history his search for Bomma yields.  There is a link between these two processes: the learning of one trade (writing fiction) while practicing another; and the subversive search for an anonymous unremarkable historical figure.  The link is that Ghosh’s writing yields subsidiary pleasures.  By breaking down barriers between genres, Ghosh is not simply attacking the boundaries, or trying to destroy the power structures inherent in genre boundaries.  He is seeking a more honest and accurate way of telling.  Books ought to create their own structure out of the material they are made of.

Lord Cromer, British Governor of Egypt at the beginning of this century:

The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he loves symmetry in all things; he is by nature sceptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism.  The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry.  His reasoning is of the most slipshod description.  Although the ancient Arabs acquired in a somewhat high degree, the science of dialectics, their descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty.  They are often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth.  Endeavor to elicit a plain statement of facts from an ordinary Egyptian.  His explanation will generally be lengthy and wanting in lucidity. He will probably contradict himself half-a-dozen times before he has finished his story. I know this is unfair.  But something about Cromer’s description fits my own unformed sense of what Ghosh is doing in his book.  This picturesque lack of symmetry, this inability to draw "the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises" is what distinguishes In an Antique Land from what it might have been.  Cromer could easily be describing the writing of many an eminent post-structuralist or postmodernist writer.  Ghosh’s writing is elegantly simple and direct, his arguments lucid and appealing, but the structure of his book does in many ways mimic the world he is describing, and the world he comes from.  This is a book about (1) anthropological field work, (2) the history of an 11th century Hindu slave of a Jewish merchant, whose records were discovered in the 19th century behind an ancient Cairo synagogue, and (3) a record of the older Ghosh’s trips back to Egypt to recover both the friendships he made in his Delta village and possible other clues to the life of this Hindu slave.  Timothy Mitchell explains a city street system built not on the model of a consumer, but on communal terms.  Ghosh might resist thinking of the book as travel writing.  The whole enterprise of travel writing is suspect, I’m sure, in his thinking.  Yet the book takes us to two different places and times.  The book is also, in some defiant way, an ancient village, or modeled on the organization of streets and thinking quite alien to the modern European and American mind.  Ghosh himself grew up surrounded by Moslems.  Unlike another displaced Hindu, V. S. Naipaul, whose primordial rivalries prevented him from honestly portraying Islam in Among the Believers, Ghosh shows great curiosity about and sympathy for the Moslems he lives among in the Nile Delta, and he responds to the culture with affection.  Ghosh understands the architecture of the minds of this place, perhaps because it is not so very different from the architecture of the mind he grew up with.  Rikki Ducornet’s lovely theory spoken by her mad narrator in "Roseveine," that the brain is shaped by its thoughts, not the other way around, is similar to what I’m trying to say here: that the structure of this book is shaped by its thoughts.  Europeans felt lost in Middle Eastern towns and cities, because there was not obvious order or structure.  The shape of the town was practical, not chaotic, as it appeared to visitors.  The maze grew out of essential needs for privacy, and out of a much different sense of the self in the world, as Timothy Mitchell in Colonizing Egypt points out: Haussmann laid out the boulevards of Paris to create a precise perspective in the eye of the correctly positioned individual, who was given an external point of view by the enframing architecture.  The observer "perceives himself at the centre of the city," wrote a Tunisian visitor [to 19th century Paris], "surrounded by its buildings, its streets and its gardens."  But it was not just the particular position that was new; it was the very effect of having a position. Its strange novelty was the novelty of modern subjectivity, which is not a "natural" relation of the person to the world but a careful and curious construction.  The subject was set up outside the facades, like the visitor to an exhibition, and yet was surrounded and contained by them.  It was a position both outside and inside.  In contrast, ... the pre-colonial Middle Eastern town provided no such position.  The architectural feint of façades and viewpoints was not at work.  The individual did not stand outside an object world as the one addressed by it, nor, at its centre as the one in terms of whom, as it seems to us, there is an order and a meaning. Let me contrast what Ghosh does with his villagers, how he sees them and how he honestly and vulnerably interacts with them, to a superficially similar "reading" of an Egyptian village by an American writer in the 1970s, Richard Critchfield.  Timothy Mitchell also helps me here, in his savage critique of this book, Shahhat, an Egyptian (from the International Journal of Middle East Studies), exposing the book as plagiarism and insincere portrayal of a character to further American interests in Egypt: Shahhat, the rather petulant adolescent who is the story’s central character, is said to be in many ways "typical of the great mass of poor Egyptians," and since his fellow villagers "all represent people found in the rural Third World today," the author tells us that he "found Shahhat and his problems exemplary."  The problems involved are those that face a violence-prone adolescent as he adjusts to the recent deaths of his weak and alcoholic father amid the demands of an adoring and overbearing mother (as Robert Fernea remarks in his review of the book, "Freudian constructs haunt the scene").  Presented as "the story of how a deeply traditional Egyptian, when faced with sudden changes in his way of life, ... comes of age," Shahhat’s life is to be read an an individual enactment of the larger drama of "modernization," in which villagers who have "never changed their way of life" in more than 6,000 years are forced to adjust to modernity in less than a decade. Aside from the fact that Shahhat is cribbed from several other readings of Egyptian peasants (as well as Vietnamese peasants), and that he may not ever have actually existed (which is another typical response to travel some writers in the 19th and 20th centuries have had: to fictionalize, sometimes radically altering experience; a brilliant and influential book by Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana, is most likely much more fiction than travel reporting).  This act of generalizing, of using a figure like Shahhat to stand for a larger argument, or an agenda, is something Amitav Ghosh admirably resists with the subjects of In an Antique Land.  Ghosh has his own agenda, but it is personal and historiographic.  He seems to leave his villagers alone to live their own lives, although he is not shy of intervention, not above interfering both as a joke and in an earnest desire to help out his friends—nor is he worried that the characters of Lataifa and Nashawy often interfere with his own anthropological research.

Another book similar to Ghosh’s is Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet.  Mottahedeh is much more solidly situated in a tradition, as a historian.  His previous books were straight historical research.  Mantle is in nearly every way a model of good historical research, too.  It violates the genre in one crucial aspect, for a very good reason: most of the book is "told" from the point of view of an Iranian Mullah who participated in the Iranian Revolution of 1977, but later wearied of the excesses of post-revolutionary life.  The book that grew out of many interviews with this man (along with several other figures) also fits into Mottahedeh’s other areas of interest, but because of his friendship with the Mullah, and his reliance on him as a source of so much anecdotal information, Mottahedeh could not in good conscience either tell the story with a veiled source, or reveal the source, for fear of retribution against this Mullah.  So Mottahedeh made the history into a sort of novel, fudging crucial details in the life of this religious scholar and teacher, so that it would be difficult to trace the description of the man back to the man himself.  The book met with considerable acclaim, but also a great deal of consternation from historians, who found his novelizing tendencies difficult to defend, in the end.

James Clifford, from The Predicament of Culture:

In New Guinea Margaret Mead ... chose not to study groups that were “badly missionized”; and it had been self-evident to Malinowski in the Trobriands that what most deserved scientific attention was the circumscribed “culture” threatened by a host of modern “outside” influences.   The experience of Melanesians becoming Christians for their own reasons—learning to play, and play with, the outsiders’ games—did not seem worth salvaging.

So what’s my point?  I am not all that interested in Clifford’s distinctions.  Nor in how Clifford Geertz would categorize the book, according to his essay "Blurred Genres," as another example of a text we cannot place in one or more genres.  Geertz says this is now a "phenomenon general enough and distinctive enough to suggest that what we are seeing is not just another redrawing of the cultural map... but an alteration of the principles of mapping. Something is happening to the way we think about the way we think."

Something similar is at work in this book and I think by extension some of the best writing going on nowadays.  The reason Ghosh has to bust genres, has to violate the traditions of several genres, is political, at heart.  Anthropology and field work, would not allow him to include the sweeping historical research so necessary to this book, necessary not because of the book’s overall structure, but necessary because it is personally so important to Ghosh himself, as he tries to find some ancient analogue to his own sometimes bewildering experience.  A straight historical text would also not allow for the field notes or the soul-searching he does.  And a travel book would force Ghosh to ask the question: who is he writing this book for?  Travel narratives have a target audience of home, back home, implicitly the hordes of imperial colonizers or, in modern times, the equivalent, tourists, the temporary homesteaders.

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