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Jamal Mahjoub Biography

novel postcolonial british tanner

Nationality: English-Sudanese. Born: London (raised in Sudan), 1960. Education: Comboni College, Sudan; Atlantic College, Wales; University of Sheffield, England. Career: Translator and writer. Lives in Aarhus, Denmark. Awards: Guardian/Heinemann African Short Story prize.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Navigation of a Rainmaker: An Apocalyptic Vision of War-Torn Africa. Oxford, England, Heinemann International, 1989.

Wings of Dust. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1994.

In the Hour of Signs. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1996.

The Carrier. London, Phoenix House, 1998.

* * *

According to Abiola Irele, modern African fiction by writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka predominantly explores issues of tradition. While tradition in a central African sense incorporates both the vision of a collective future shaped by the past and also the recognition of a brutal dislocation from the past because of slavery and colonialism, Sudanese-British writer Jamal Mahjoub engages in an ironically "High Modernist" reinterpretation of tradition. In Mahjoub's fiction, conceptions of the post-colonial tradition are rooted in a history of colonial collision, hearkening back to the British occupation of the Sudan (1898-1955), which resulted in the intensification of differences of an already disparate Sudanese population, the gentrification of an educated elite in the north, and the alienation of a nomadic agrarian poor in the south.

Born in the Sudan but educated in England and now living in Denmark, Mahjoub straddles many zones of identification and uses High Modernist novel techniques to produce narratives that poignantly critique colonialism. Although focussing on Ghanaian and Nigerian novelists, David I. Kier in The African Novel and the Modernist Tradition offers perhaps the best critical lens through which Mahjoub's novels may be illuminated. According to Kier, Modernism supplies the postcolonial novelist with an art able to express a particular view of history that emphasizes disorder, despair, and anarchy. Modernism thus becomes the perfect medium for the African novelist for conveying nostalgia for the African past while issuing bitterly ironic indictments of the present. In Navigation of a Rainmaker, Wings of Dust, and In the Hour of Signs, Jamal Mahjoub maps the psychological, political, and historical geographies of postcolonial consciousness in all of its opposing manifestations and from a myriad of perspectives.

Through the main character of Tanner, Navigation of a Rainmaker personifies the ideological complexities arising from the geographical splitting of the Sudan into the Westernized North and the aboriginal South. The structure and thematics of the novel echo this polarization. In "North," the first section of the book, Tanner broods listlessly over the social decay that wells up all around him. Like the angst-ridden heroes of James Joyce or Jean Paul Sartre, Tanner suffers from a profound alienation. However, unlike the typical Modernist hero, the cause of Tanner's anomie is made clear as Mahjoub explicitly links it to colonialism's forced separation of Northerners—a mix of wild, begging children, ex-colonial bureaucrats, and white-color service workers—from the nomadic Southerners, whose proximity to the desert and nativist lifestyle offer a pathway toward a pre-colonial origin. The novel charts Tanner's journey to this mythological, originary South, which is both a physical place and a state of unified being, where he may repair the psychic trauma inflicted upon him by diasporic separation and national disintegration. Written at a time when many Northern Sudanese people were fleeing a newly installed military government, Tanner's jeremiadic quest for a purer homeland thus reflects the country's larger crisis of self-definition.

On his mission South, Tanner accompanies a mysterious African-American surveyor who turns out to be a secret agent representing international parties with a vested interest in the country's political turmoil. The scenes of espionage only confirm Tanner's suspicions that his search for a pre-colonial space untouched by corruption and colonial power is futile, even in the heart of the sacred desert. And yet, this futility is part of the motivational paradox that drives many of Mahjoub's protagonists: behind the surface of the postcolonial's moribund cynicism lies a fierce optimism that cannot be extinguished even in the face of growing instability.

Just as Navigation of a Rainmaker juxtaposes two, distinct places in space, Wings of Dust is a semi-autobiographical novel that relays between two periods of time in the life of Sharif, another first-person narrator haunted by the colonial past and tragically doomed to seek in the postcolonial present some semblance of meaning, coherence, or reunion. From his present life in exile, where he inhabits a dilapidated hotel owned by an aimless, insane woman, Sharif struggles to tell the story of his past. In the style of the bildungsroman, Sharif's early life and London education unfold to reveal the ephemeral idealisms of a motley band of Sudanese students, who, in the 1950s, dream of rebuilding their home country only to find years later that their Western experiences only alienate them from their families and native communities. When Sharif finally does return to the Sudan and attains a position of political leadership, corruption at all levels flouts his idealistic efforts and forces him into his present state of paranoid, death-obsessed insularity. In addition to exposing the vexed psychology of the postcolonial, the novel plays lyrically with themes of time and temporality. Even the most trivial characters from the past are introduced in a manner that suddenly leaps forward in time to capture them in their eventual decay.

Wings of Dust also provides a clear expression of Mahjoub's postcolonial literary aesthetic. While defending his Western appropriations, Sharif describes a form of literary defiance that helps define Mahjoub's use of Modernism: Sharif advises that postcolonial artists must ignite a "cultural rebellion" by openly borrowing from Western language, turning its inflections against the West, and metaphorically assassinating the sacred poets of the West. And although the novel performs precisely this method of artistic resistance, the metaphysical loneliness of its cryptic narrator sheds light on the price that such cultural warfare exacts—by blurring the line between what constitutes the authentic native and the culturally British writer, Sharif also may be assassinating himself in his narrative seizure of Western aesthetics.

Mahjoub's third novel, In the Hour of Signs, turns to the last two decades of the nineteenth century to recount the divergent political, religious, and military movements that led up to the British victory over the Islamic followers of the messianic Mahdi at El Obeid Town. This pivotal victory set in motion all of the psychological rupture, boundary disputes, and internal polarization of the Sudan which Mahjoub's first two novels explore. The structure of the novel reflects a mature style as it expands Mahjoub's signature cross-cutting technique between places and times to include panoply of characters, each representing a particular national interest in the ensuing conflict. Indeed, with the role of narrator shared among four or more characters, the novel exercises a vigorous cinematic point of view that forces the reader to constantly move between points of identification, to appropriate the very same sense of historical confusion and contradictory sympathies that perhaps Mahjoub and other present-day British-Sudanese feel towards the historic battle.

Premiere among the novel's oscillating narrators is Hawi, a questing ex-hermit who seeks to validate the religious legitimacy of the Mahdi—the Expected One prophesied by Islam, whose military repulsion of British forces also entails a zealous purification of traditional Islamic practices. Other narrators include Hamilton Ellesworth, an ambivalent British officer coming to terms with the crude justifications for empire building; Kodoro, a young Turkish boy and an innocent slave in the Pasha's Ottoman empire; and Nejumi, an idealistic general in the Mhadi's army, the ansar, who is committed to defending the town of Khartoum. The novel thus reprises the postcolonial condition by imagining a constellation of histories converging around a single event. But despite its historical focus, the novel may also be read as a commentary on the way that current issues specific to North Africa and the Middle East (civil wars, jihads, the Gulf War) are constantly processed in the Western media, always from only one point of view.

Working within British, central African, and Arabic traditions, Mahjoub's diverse literary affiliations on the one hand reflect the specific radical multiculturalism of the Sudan's various classes, ethnic groups, and religions, and on the other, provide another instance of what Anthony Appiah terms a "shifting of canonical territories." Mahjoub's fissure is part of a larger disruption in the modern British canon recently infused with an exciting roster of expatriate postcolonial writers. In a 1997 speech "The Writer and Globalism" Mahjoub aligns himself with Fred D'Aguiar, Meera Syal, Andrea Levy, Bidisha, and Corttia Newland as the inheritors of an English literary renaissance begun by the group collectively known as the "Empire Writes Back" writers—Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Timothy Mo, and Michael Ondaatje. In the same speech Mahjoub argues that postcolonial subjects naturally develop an ironic attitude towards history and globalism, and suggests that the same conditions which forced subaltern subjects to accept hybridity also led to an increased literary ability, an acumen for interweaving past and present in order to reinvent a culture never yet permitted to define itself on a global scale.

—Michael A. Chaney

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