The Novel in New Lands. Bruno Macaes’ Annual Conference Seminar

Woman Reading Book --- Image by © Sven Hagolani/Corbis
Woman Reading Book — Image by © Sven Hagolani/Corbis

The end of the Annual Conference 2010 brought us Bruno Macaes’ seminar “The Novel in New Lands,” analyzing the topic of cultural exchange by looking at a particular cultural referent: how national heritage and habits in literary production remain sovereign over the foreign influences they receive.

Bruno argued that the History of Literature shouldn’t think of novels in terms of national boundaries, but as a world-wide production. The theme that was looked at in this seminar was cultural exchange as another expression of globalization. The main difficulty lies in understanding how can it take place, since the cultural form -in this case, the novel- is one individualized element, and cultural exchange presupposes that the same cultural form belongs to different cultures at the same time. It is fully absorbed, and yet remains foreign.

The examples for this seminar were the novel in China and Russia. In the first case, there exists a native form of the novel, whereas in the second case (similar to what happened in Japan), the novel as a genre was imported, it came from outside and then was assimilated to the native culture. For this cultural expression, there is a form that is foreign, but has a native content; hence, it is not entirely national.

If this analysis is taken further, and looking at foreign impact, if there is such an intercultural influence in all cultures, we may pose the question: are there only hybrid national cultures? The impact of globalization cannot be taken that far, because then there wouldn’t be any cultures at all. “If all cultures are hybrids, there are no national cultures that could merge in the first place”, Bruno stated. His theory is that there should be cultural individuality, while at the same time there must exist a capacity to communicate and exchange.

Cultural exchange has to happen, but it has to be limited by sensitivity to cultural difference. On this topic, the authors of the readings for the seminar had something to add. Davis Gasperetti -author of “Reluctant Imitators”, in The Rise of the Russian Novel– affirmed that “Influence is more of a cultural phenomenon than a literary model”. Henry Y. H. Zhao -author of “Western Influence on Chinese Fiction”, in The Uneasy Narrator; Chinese Fiction from the Traditional to the Modern– stated that “Western influence was extensive but not decisive”.

However influenced Chinese literary production may be, it also has its very own distinguishing characteristics. Looking at Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary”, the double consciousness arises as a key element in the development of modern literature. It usually shows when the narrator reports what a character says or thinks and the character’s voice is incorporated within that of the narrator. This recording embedded within another recording creates a double consciousness. When narrating in the first person, this literary resource can also appear in describing the reaction of other characters to the narrator’s speech.

In any case, we have two consciousnesses completely merged together, so we cannot any longer tell what is real. In Western literature, there is a resistance to this, since it is of capital importance not to lose individual consciousness.

This type of analysis arises in the search for genuine elements that define the novel. To determine the origin of that cultural referent by looking at the author’s nationality is very simplistic. Again, the problematic of individuality shows up. Masao Miyoshi -author of “The Accomplices of Silence: the modern Japanese novel”- says that in the case of the novel, the form comes from outside, but since the content is locally determined; the form doesn’t really fit the content.

“Novelists need people – men and women with their own motivations, their own mannerisms, their own style of intelligence, their own unique expression and appearance”, he says. The focus is again on the individual being. Japanese novels don’t have individual characters, yet this is a distinctive characteristic of the novel as a genre. A central protagonist is not the core element of narration in the Japanese novel. Is it valid to say, then, that Japanese productions are not novels? Not really, it is important to understand where exactly the two cultures meet.

For Bruno, though, such different civilizations don’t just meet, they clash. The only way characters can be incorporated is when writing about writers, the only people seen as truly individual in the society. In Miyoshi’s own words, “the problem for the Japanese novelist is that there is no general acknowledgement in his culture that noticeable personalities should be allowed to exist. The situation is not unlike that prevailing at an early stage in the development of the European novel”.

In a triangular diagram with the three main elements -the culture of origin, the foreign culture and the cultural referent- we find that for a culture of origin (such as Japan or Russia, for instance) the only way to have access to the cultural referent (in this particular case study, the novel) is through a foreign culture. If we take as a starting point the foreign culture (Western), the only way for this to have access to the culture of origin mentioned earlier, is through the cultural referent, since it is adopted and transformed following cultural patterns.

In any case, it is obvious that for a culture of origin such as that of Russia or Japan, it is an indirect access to the novel. How, then, is it going to deal with the cultural referent in a different way? Bruno claimed that there is no way to have a universal access to the cultural referent. It is always an individual, personal approach.

The Japanese literature remains different, even though it relates to the same cultural referent, because it has its own specific characteristics. Bruno pointed out two. While the Western novel relies pretty much on the idea of the plot -a series of events linked together through cause and effect-, this doesn’t exist at all in the Japanese novel. Opinions are divided as to whether this is good or bad, in any case, the Japanese novel is informed with other elements that make it properly such.

The second element is the idea of silence. Japan’s is a less verbal culture. There is a social decorum by which silence is rewarded. If we translate this into the analysis of the novel, we see that certain passages have to be seen and not heard in order to be understood. In a dialogue, for instance, what is often important is the silence between speeches, not the dialogues themselves.

The seminar provided an enriching environment where we could learn to further appreciate what an important role translation has: it renders new literary expressions and hence broadens any given culture’s horizon.

 by María Cruz (AY ’10, Argentina)

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