Friday, November 1, 2013

"The General is Resurrected" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (2 November 2013)

As I write this column here in Goa, on the other side of the planet – at the University of Iowa in the United States – the latest edition of Peter Nazareth’s novel The General is Up is being ‘cyberlaunched’. First published by the Writers Workshop in Calcutta in 1984, then Toronto’s TSAR Publications in 1991, the 2013 edition has been produced by local publishing house Goa 1556. Yet, despite Nazareth’s Goan roots and his use of Goan characters, it would not be right to say that the novel’s circuitous publishing history has finally brought it home. Indeed, at the crux of Nazareth’s tragicomic novel are the deeply perplexing questions: ‘Where is home?’ and ‘Whose home is it?’

Employed by Uganda’s Ministry of Finance until the early 1970s, Nazareth left the country during perilous times to take up a fellowship in the States. Presciently, his first novel In a Brown Mantle, published in 1972, foretold the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by President Idi Amin that same year. In The General is Up, Nazareth reuses the fictional African country of Damibia, which he introduces readers to in his debut novel. Nonetheless, it is clear that the author draws from his own intimate knowledge of political instability and personal loss, and that the novel’s dictatorial namesake is the very real Amin. Consequently, the postcolonial setting in Nazareth’s work is used to explore themes of nationalism and displacement. Goan characters, such as Ronald D’Mello in The General is Up, find themselves on the verge of being exiled from a land they had thought of as home. Interrogating concepts of national identity and belonging, the profound comment the novel offers is on the use of fiction in politics: the made-up nation of Damibia is as ‘real’ as the manufactured truth of nationalism.

Because of its multiple locations – East Africa, Goa, and the West – The General is Up is both record and allegory of the human geography of Goan identity. The just released Goan edition resurrects Nazareth’s novel for a new generation of readers. But why should this text matter to Goans? I would suggest that the novel still functions as an index of identity issues that continue to inform the fraught relationship that Goans have with the postcolonial nation, as well as class and caste. Take the aforementioned D’Mello’s reminiscence of his time in Goa: “He could not go to any of the Damibian ... schools because ... the colonial government had made sure that there was no racial mixing ... [I]n Goa, ... he had discovered that there was nothing inherently middle-class about Goans. Just like Damibians, Goans could be servants, bus drivers, peasants, as well as the occasional landowner.” 

Through D’Mello’s experience, Nazareth presents a critique of social stratification and internalised racism. By telescoping what his character finds in Goa to the diaspora, while also critically diminishing the difference between the two, the novelist assesses the limited bases of community formation and ethnic solidarity, simultaneously holding the nation to task for its imperious designs – the collusion betwixt these elements hangs thickly in the background of events that unfold in the novel. It is not just the General, that ironic symbol of postcolonial freedom, that Nazareth holds up to scrutiny, but also those seemingly average actors who play their part in perpetuating the status quo. Even now, The General is Up still reads as a cautionary tale of how home is never what it seems.

To see the print version of this article, visit here.

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