This page last revised 12 May 1998
Owen: Back to first principles. What are we trying to do?
Yolland: Good question.
Owen: We are trying to denominate and at the same time describe . . .
Dun na nGall or Donegal? Muineachain or Monaghan? Same place, same difference? As Owen says about his own name:
Owen - Roland - what the hell. Its only a name.
( Translations )
For the student of post-colonial literature, what transpires in Friels play as the British army proceed to map this particular corner of the empire is that like language itself, it is not so much the naming and the changing of names but what that signifies and what those names signify in a particular context, coming from a particular mouth.
A simple post-colonial reading could view such events as a violation of geographic space: Imperialism after all is an act of geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control. (Said, 10), and an appropriation and subversion of identity.
What makes Friels play so rich is the way his dialogue plays with the subtle antinomies and nuances of the situation. Can one identify a coherent imperial project, a desire to exterminate subversive Gaelic or is it the inevitable pragmatic impulse of commerce and laissez-faire economics?
The practicalities of day-to-day existence are clear in Maires desire to learn English so she can work in America. Owen exemplifies engagement with the colonial centre in contrast to his brother, Manus. However, when the play has taken its tragic turn it is Owen who suffers ignominy at the command of Lancey who orders him, Do your job - translate. (Act 3)
The translations acquire the bitter taste of complicity, betrayal and shame in Owens mouth.
Owen also serves, potentially, as mimic-man in his role as servant of the empire - one who, . . .simultaneously reinforces colonial authority and disturbs it.(Sharpe) His final exit, to find Doalty - be it to help him or hinder him - as a Yeatsian man of action, potentiates this aspect of the theoretical type. His blend of pragmatism and willingness to engage mark him as, in Saidian terms, a potentially liberating force. Manus in this binarism represents Saids first stage of Nationalism.
Jose Rabasa, in Allegories of Atlas, discusses the significance of the map in colonial and post-colonial contexts. Functioning as a mirror of the world it offers a conception of a reality, . . . it aims to invoke a simulacrum of an always inaccessible totality by means of an arrangement of symbols. (Rabasa)
Like the Lacanian mirror there will always be a disjunction. As Sharpe notes in Bhabha, there is an ambivalence and an . . . absence of closure that allows for native intervention.
This fact is a metaphor in itself and it is the representational metaphor of Translations. If indeed we accept at face-value Friels insistence that it . . . has to do with language and only language. (Pine, 146) then the play, the dramatic whole, the picture, is an attempt at mapping the contours, depressions, peaks and valleys of interactive human consciousness. It is shifting, never the same, never totally quantifiable or predictable - bearing names, like places, changing, changeable.
Through Hugh and Jimmy Jack, this play about the flux of signification, employing the fluid signification of language, it wrestles with meaning and with being - ontos and episteme. Ultimately, like Vladimir and Estragon, even stronger than the memories of that time is the compulsion to find companionship.
Jimmy: Someone to talk to.
Jimmy: Thats all Hugh. The whole story. You know it all now, Hugh. You know it all.
Derek Walcott, in The Muse of History, speaks of a sense of post-colonial identity as a new Eden, . . . an elation which sees everything as renewed. (Ashcroft, et al 371)
It is not the idealised, amnesiac vision of Yolland but something more akin to the day-to-day existence of Hugh and Jimmy. As Hugh warns Owen,
To remember everything is a form of madness.
To be bound to history is to be bound to myth for history is inevitably narrativized.
In time every event becomes an exertion of memory and thus subject to invention. (Ashcroft, et al 370) Doaltys recollection that, When my grandfather was a boy they did the same thing, reflects the bind of history. He will resist. Baile Beag/Ballybeg is poised on the edge of the abyss. It could be argued that the colonial obsession with the future , what Walcott calls, . . . the rational madness of history seen as sequential time, (Ashcroft et al, 373) engenders a reciprocal resistance rooted in the narrative of the past. It seems history is to blame?
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Aidan Fadden. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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