THE LIMITS OF THE COSMOPOLITAN NOVEL: MISSPELLING BARÇA…

The cosmopolitan novel, according to Berthold Schoene’s eponymous volume (2009), opposes both the novel limited by the national territory (whether it is nationalist or not), and the post-colonial novel, which questions the very essence of the territorial from a critical position. The cosmopolitan writer has been freed by globalization to write about any theme located in any place s/he fancies, albeit it’s important not to confuse the cosmopolitan with the global. The novel of globalization is still imperialistic and colonialist whereas the true cosmopolitan novel supposes that cross-cultural representation is open to all. We should expect in the near future Russian novelists to deal with Spain, or Indian authors to write about Japan, if you get the drift. As citizens of the world truly interested in other cultures. Fair enough.

The actual examples I’ve come across, though, have a good share of problems. Perhaps the classic case by now is Albert Sánchez Piñol’s novel La pell freda (2002), a peculiar tale which mixes Conrad and Lovecraft in a South Pole location, and with an Irish protagonist. The novel is written in Catalan but, as you can see, neither the setting nor the characters are connected at all with Catalonia. The impression the reader gets is that the book is a translation of a missing original in English, not because the Catalan language is misused (far from it) but because the plot is culturally alien to the language. I know this is an odd statement.

The cosmopolitan novel seems to be a growing trend in SF, or at least this is my impression after reading a while ago Paolo Bacigalupi’s thrilling biopunk novel The Windup Girl (2009, set in 23rd century Thailand), and more recently Ian McDonald’s ambitious nanotech novel The Dervish House (2010, set in 2027 Istanbul). McDonald might well be the cosmopolitan writer of the current SF wave, considering other works like River of Gods (set in India), or Brasyl. Bacigalupi, by the way, is American; McDonald, born in Manchester, lives in Belfast.

The Dervish House opens with a prologue in which McDonald explains how to pronounce the many Turkish names in his volume. I didn’t bother with this, as I would have needed, anyway, an audio file to understand the sounds. I braced myself for the necessary immersion in a doubly unfamiliar world for me: that of the city of Istanbul, and that of a near future saturated with nanotechnology. As I struggled with both the Turkish names and the SF neologisms, I wondered whether the author spends a few months on location before writing his novels or whether this was a Google kind of novel (the current equivalent of Bram Stoker writing about Transylvania in the British Library). I decided to trust McDonald on the accuracy of the Istanbul settings and the Turkish names, and let myself be impressed by his research. I was, however, thrown off this path by his mentioning, in the context of a remark on a football match to be played in Istanbul, my local football team, Barça, as Barca. Oh, oh, I thought…

As usual, I turned next to Amazon and, sure indeed, there was a reader, claiming to have been an Istanbul resident, bitterly protesting against McDonald’s bizarre handling of the local names and language particularities. He complained particularly about how a) mistakes could have been avoided with more careful editing, b) having Turkish characters speak English heavily distorted their cultural singularities. I understand what he means as, once more, I felt that the dialogues were translated (or ‘dubbed’). Another reader had started an angry discussion by arguing that since few local Istanbul readers or Turkish speakers would read McDonald’s book, the complaints were besides the point. So much for the didactic potential of cosmopolitanism.

There are, I think, diverse comments to be made here. One is that perhaps The Dervish House and similar novels are not really cosmopolitan but examples of globalization’s top heavy view of the world, still privileging English-speaking authors to ‘use’ the world as they please. Another is that the idea of the ‘exotic’ is not dying at all, despite the efforts of post-colonial scholars to show that it smacks too much of the colonial and the imperialist. Some would argue here that, simply, the cosmopolitan novel cannot really surface without globalization being completed, which would mean positioning all cultures at the same level regarding the ability to produce cross-cultural narratives. Either we’re all exotic to each other and say so, or we abandon exoticism for good on the basis that all human experience is, basically, the same all over the planet.

My conclusion, after reading The Dervish House, though, is that true cosmopolitanism should consist of making all local writing, in whatever language, available to all other cultures. It would be great to read a Turkish SF novel in Catalan. And invite McDonald to write an SF masterpiece set in his home town, Belfast. For, as Alasdair Gray claimed in Lanark, places are only made real, even for their own inhabitants, if imagined in books by those who live there.

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