The Potential of Irony to Transform Politics

By Lynne Rogers

Of Irony and Empire:
Islam, the West, and the Transcultural Invention of Africa
By Laura Rice
State University of New York Press, 2009

In “Of Irony and Empire: Islam, the West, and the Transcultural Invention ofAfrica,” Laura Rice predicates her discussion of the novels by Cheik Hamidou Kane, Tayeb Salih, Mustapha Tlili and Malika Mokeddem on a liberal and erudite foundation of literary theory. Focusing on the nomadic Saharan culture, Rice illuminates the political potential of irony as “a way of understanding how competing social imaginaries interacted to create transcultural invention of Muslim Africa.” Referring to Edward Said, Franz Fanon, Kenneth Burke, Michel Foucault and others, Rice distinguishes between stable ironies as the tool of exclusion and unstable ironies of open systems which foster analysis of the status quo. Well-versed in history as well as theory, her chapter on African conscripts provides an informed reading of a variety of sources to expose “Western racial paradigms prevalent in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, as they relate to the experience and representations of African soldiers forced to fight other peoples battles in World War I and II.” Her discussion of Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, both acknowledges previous critics and contrasts “the elements of a Muslim social imaginary from which Kane drew in creating his work (orality, religious and political history, mystical Sufism), and the elements of the Western social imaginary individualism, notions of progress in literary narratives, existentialism) that distort the reception of this non-Western text by Western audiences.” Rice deftly utilizes Freud’s uncanny and Foucault’s “heterotopias” in her close reading of Season of Migration to the North, as she designates Sa’eed’s library as a “space of deviation.” In Tlili’s novel Lion Mountain, Rice delineates the “geography of identity” into “three conceptual coordinates: place, time and space.” Rice, who has translated Mokeddem, considers  the autobiographical closeness of Mokeddem’s work, her use of a ‘tribal social imaginary with which she is often at odds in crucial ways” and the complicated “politics of reception” for a Muslim female writing from France. While certainly not for the faint-hearted or those weary of theory, the academic depth “Of Irony and Empire” provides a treasure chest for graduate students both in interdisciplinary content and as an example of well-researched and culturally sensitive scholarship.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63


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