Exploring Irony as a Coping Mechanism for the Failed Model of Universalism: ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ and ‘Cockroach’
Both Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia (Buddha) and Rawi Hage’s Cockroach are situated within the diaspora writing that proliferates Canadian literature as a whole. Diaspora is a Greek word, a combination of the prefix dia- (meaning “through”) and the verb sperein (meaning “to sow” or “to scatter”) (Brent Hayes Edwards 41). Supposedly, this form of literature, where hybrid writing is situated at its core, provides an imaginative narrative space for immigrant characters to develop their identities. This is due to the nature of its style. Hybrid writing in style and language bears the features of the writers’ countries of origin and of their host countries. This aspect of diaspora writings, written in the master’s language loaded with endless search for identity and longing, occupies a third position that is not entirely Indian/Labanese or English, thus allowing a space for immigrant voices to be heard. As such, there are expectations for diaspora writing to not only offer a space for the immigrant characters living in exile to voice their joys and pains but also bridge the mutual understanding between the South Asia and the West from a planetary viewpoint. Yet, both novels present such a happy resolution to be simply speculative. In fact, Cockroach even goes as far as to dismiss the assumption that all immigrants have a knee-jerk inclination to integrate into their new environment by injecting within its narrative bitter and depressing overtones. While Buddha does not confront the readers with a series of viscious irony, the novel contains undertones of irony that presents the ideal model of transcultural integration to be ambivalent at best.
The illusion of Canadian multiculturalism—the hybrid coexistence of diverse cultural life-world is severely inverted in Cockroach. Instead, the novel positions hybridity as a contradiction of cultural tolerance. This disillusionment is exemplified through Farhoud’s sex experience with his former lover, a Canadian diplomat, who embraces Farhoud’s exoticism but despises his body after they arrives in Montreal. The diplomat requires Farhoud to wash himself , asking him in a polite manner to “clean himself” because he is “not in [his] own country anymore”(Rawi Hage 111). Farhoud is given a taste of what respect for the Other means in liberal tolerance. The novel illustrates the Other as one who by definition is filthy. The treatment of an Other, then, becomes an obscene underground of the unspoken underpinnings that proliferates Montreal. Significantly, the narrator’s humiliating job experience brings this obscene center of multiculturalist tolerance to its extreme light. When he voluntarily inquires the French restaurant captain, Maître Pierre for a job as waiter, the captain replies “Tue s un peu trop cuit pour ça (you are a little too well done for that)! Le soleil t’a brûlé ta face un peu trop (the sun has burned your face a bit too much)” (29). This sort of tamed racism symbolizes the same Western hostility that is purely ideological but equally detrimental to its physical counterpart. The narrator is turned down, not because of his incapability for the job but his skin color. His supposed freedom of choice within a nation that proclaims its cultural liberalism, has ironically been pre-determined by ethnicity. Thus, his ignorant request exposes the hypocrisy within the universality of multiculturalism that Canada refuses to publicly renounce.
Multicultural tolerance in Buddha is also portrayed as illusory. Hybridity in the novel is only accepted within the context of cultural exploitation, and the novel questions whether such toxic relationships between cultures can even be considered harmonious. Specifically, Haroon happily engages in such relationships with the West through his hybridity. Despite being Muslim, Haroom practices Chinese buddhism in the West (Hanif Kureishi 31). While this quality makes him a hybrid form of two cultures, he embodies an uncanny sense of hybridity because there is no room for his Muslim identity to develop within the Chinese-British dichotomy that he chooses to nurture. To add on to this absurdity, his uncanny hybrid self is seemingly accepted by his British environment as the Westerners readily fethishizes his Asianness to the point where Haroon’s self-created Buddhism is marvelled as “authentic” (45)— even though a Muslim is someone who practices Islam and not Buddhism. Here, the oddity of Haroon’s hybridity can only be justified by capitalist motivations, and though Haroon reaps positive results in his new environment, Hage actively interrogates the specs of tranculturalism that were previously overlooked.
Haroon’s perversion of identity does not come inconsequentially. The consequences of his actions are simply transposed onto his son instead. As a product of a mix race family where his Indian father denies his children of their racial heritage, Karim has no alternative to his version of Englishness, which he recognises a “funny kind” but he nevertheless attempts to identify as “an Englishman born and bred” (3). The result of his father’s negation from their Indianess is starkly pronounced in Karim. Since his father never gives him the necessary input about his Indianness, Karim shows signs of cultural ambivalence where he oscillates between his hybrid identity of Indianness and Englishnness, yet never quite settling for either one. Hence, when Karim renounces any notion of religion, his atheism can be read as a result of cultural displacement. His father, with his conversion to Buddhist practices, is constantly ridiculed as Karim ironically addresses Haroon as “God” (21). Even when Uncle Anwar goes on hunger strike to force his daughter into an arranged marriage, Karim does not understand Anwar’s reasoning and condemns the action as “old-fashioned . . . out of date” and dismisses Anwar’s religious faith as “plain illusion in the head” (60). In fact, Karim completely ostracises religion from the construction of his identity: “I thought I was one of the first people in history to find all religion childish and inexplicable” (212).
Without paternal guidance, Karim acquires his hybridity through Western societal stereotypes instead. He frequently professes that he feels “incomplete” and as if half of him were missing (212) because he has no memories of and no connection whatsoever with his ancestral culture, which forces him to learn about his cultural identity through the image that Western society imposes on him. Hence, when Karim is invited to be his “authentic self” by his theatre directors, he becomes at loss at this ironic need to mimic Indianness, especially when he views his life as a constant endeavour to mimic Englishness. During his acting career with both of the theatre directors he works with. They ask him to be “an authentic Indian”, sound and act Indian. Yet, it is an indisputable fact that Karim’s capabilities as an English speaker is what landed him into the theatrical role in the very first place. This phenomenon, which Homi Bhabha defines as a type of fixity where “the colonizer has to keep repeating what is already known to remind both himself and its subject of their respective places and at the same time ask the subject to improve himself, to mimic and imitate-only to a certain extent” (Bhabha 87), becomes the source of Karim’s cultural ambivalence, along with the absence of a paternal figure to guide or educate him on his heritage. Such contradictions brought about by Western colonizer’s obsession with the fixity of the colonized, despite providing comedic relief to the novel, ultimately isolates Karim on the ethnic enclaves of suburbia.
As compared to Buddha, Cockroach is much more depressing novel. Yet, it is the more nostalgic novel out of the two. While nostalgia and irony appear to be poles on the opposing ends where nostalgia is seen as “the end of irony,” Linda Hutcheon argues that irony is simply a more edgy form of nostalgia (Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern). Nostalgia, along with other forms of irony, work in conjunction to evoke strong allusions to the Labenese war that Cockroach constantly returns to with its strong, violent imagery that suspends within its own contained sense of resignation—a sensation that Buddha reprieves readers from experiencing. In Cockroach, the protagonist presents multiple narratives that compete against each other, thus making him seem insane. However, as a personification of the Lebanon war, his actions can be understood as a nostalgic return to wartimes, where a sense of home that is sorely missing in Canada is reinvoked. Lebanon’s civil war is characteristically complicated and multifaceted (Tony Badran 35) because of its hybrid nature, multiple participants, and impacts on both regional and global powers—aspects that the narrator embodies. Notably, the courses of the war are derived from the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon and the war effort entirely relies on foreign sources, which sponsor factions that promote their interests. As a part of this war history, the narrator symbolises the unfortunate “cockroach” that carries forward the remnants of life, trauma, and Lebanese identity that the civil war left behind into its new Canadian environment.
The image of the cockroach as the abject Other and its natural characteristics continue to disrupt the narrator’s civilized identity as the human. In Cockroach, the narrator’s identity conflict between the cockroach and the human is the struggle between modernity and culture. The human subject strikes to keep his self, while being reminded by the cockroach—his otherness. The split identity appears after he fails to commit suicide and takes drugs. After the narrator on drug, he inherited the gaze of modernity, and suddenly imagines his existence as the cockroach: In the mirror I saw my face, my long jaw, my whiskers slicing through the smoke around me. I saw many naked feet moving (Hage 19). The existence of the cockroach embodies his abjection of his cultural memory of bare survival. The cockroach reminds the narrator’s shameful past and situates him in the border between modernity and culture, which exposes him in the scene of castration, in the ugly and filthy surrounding of his homeland. Ultimately, the narrator rejects the psychological assessment and accepts this otherness, he as a living being is excluded, to be put into “the hospital” and receives medical treatment with some pills again (286)—a decision that is highly ironical, given the fact that his resignation demands that he return to the state of bare survival and is forced to continue living under the illusion of societal reintegration.
While Buddha and Cockroach clearly differ in terms of styles and the imagery evoked through their use of irony, both novels address the same anxiety about the equality that multiculturalism promises to give. By inserting irony within the diasporic dialogue, Buddha and Cockroach confronts the oblivion that enshrouds the actual struggle of retaining a hybrid identity: With Buddha compounding Chinese and European culture within a Muslim (Haroon) and Cockroach displaying the narrator’s hybrid qualities as a Lebanese and a cockroach, the theory of hybridity is mocked and renounced, and an ideal version of universalism that situates hybridity at the core of its nexus as a panacea for the immigrant experience is ultimately debunked. Perhaps it requires scathing irony to redress the challenges of immigrant identity in a society that has prematurely concluded those difficulties as a nonissue.
Badran, Tony. “Lebanon’s Militia Wars.” Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis. Ed.Barry Rubin. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 2004. Print. Edwards, Brent Hayes. “Diaspora.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: New York UP, 2007. 81-84. Print. Hage, Rawi. De Niro’s Game. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Print. Hutcheon, Linda. “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern by Linda Hutcheon.” University of Toronto English Library. University of Toronto, 19 Jan. 1998. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.