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Borrowed FormsThe Music and Ethics of Transnational Fiction$
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Kathryn Lachman

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781781380307

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781380307.001.0001

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From Mikhail Bakhtin to Maryse Condé The Problems of Literary Polyphony

From Mikhail Bakhtin to Maryse Condé The Problems of Literary Polyphony

(p.29) Chapter One From Mikhail Bakhtin to Maryse Condé The Problems of Literary Polyphony
Borrowed Forms

Kathryn Lachman

Liverpool University Press

Critics have classified African and Caribbean novels as “polyphonic” with little consideration of what precisely this entails. This chapter puts forth a more precise definition of polyphony by reading Maryse Condé's canonical novel, Traversée de la mangrove [Crossing the Mangrove], against leading theorists of literary polyphony, Mikhail Bakhtin and Milan Kundera. Because it takes the form of a ritual wake and features multiple narrators, critics have widely hailed Condé's novel as an exemplary instance of polyphonic writing. On closer examination, however, the novel challenges a common misperception about literary polyphony, namely the idea that a written text can approximate oral culture and give voice to disenfranchised subjects. This reading attends to the distinct levels of narration at work in Condé's novel to show how the text creates a false impression of intimacy and community, while maintaining an aesthetic of opacity. The chapter assesses the aesthetic strategies and ethical priorities of Condé's writing against those of other major Caribbean writers: Césaire, Glissant, and Chamoiseau. It argues that the uncritical use of the term “polyphony” in relation to Condé's fiction (and that of other authors from the Global South) has obscured our understanding of ethics and representation, and muted the social critique present in many of these texts.

Keywords:   Mikhail Bakhtin, polyphony, Maryse Condé, voice, silence, Milan Kundera, Caribbean fiction, ethics, Traversée de la mangrove

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