Lee on Chandna (2021)

Chandna, Mohit. Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces: Colonial Borders in French and Francophone Literature and Film. Leuven UP, 2021, 301, ISBN: 9789462702738

In Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces: Colonial Borders in French and Francophone Literature and Film, Mohit Chandna shows the value of using the lens of spatial analysis to consider the colonial project. European colonialism, which seeks “unending spatial expansion,” is, after all, preoccupied with dominating territories (15). And the resulting geographical boundaries, as Chandna argues, “have transformed the colonial subject” (246). To make this argument, Chandna’s study deftly deploys “material, historical, linguistic and postmodern readings” (247) of the interactions between colonial spatial paradigms and the colonized body in French and Francophone literature and film from the nineteenth- to twenty-first centuries. Methodologically, it takes the perspective that colonial geography is intertwined with time, language, identity, and gender in order to show how the seemingly natural designations presented by these categories are historically produced. By reading “space in the wake of colonialism” (210), Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces offers stimulating analyses of the profound impact of colonial spatial practices on postcolonial subjectivity in French fictional texts.

One of the primary issues that Chandna takes up is how colonial subjects push back against “the centrality of the ever-present colonial borders” (251). As the two parts of the book’s title indicate, Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces considers the tension between colonially imposed borders and the surpassing of these borders. Chandna takes a theoretically rich path with historical breadth to arrive at this goal. Chapter one lays the groundwork of the study by setting up the importance of understanding “the literary processes that are involved in giving spaces their valence” instead of viewing geography “as something that can be described in isolation as a discrete entity” (26). This opening chapter provides background on geographical studies of literature to prepare the reader for the fine-tuned spatial explorations in the subsequent chapters.

Chandna contends that “in order to reckon with the here and now, one needs to start with the there and then” (250). Anchoring the analysis of postcolonial subjectivity in the “there and then” is the task taken up in chapter two. Through a reading of Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1872), this chapter shows the tyranny of the new colonial spatial paradigm as it was applied to the landscape of India. This nineteenth-century novel makes plain colonialism’s spatial logic of domination and illustrates how “space produces the colonial subject” (15). As evidenced by Verne’s novel, the narrator’s view of the world perpetuates the colonial project of geographic homogenization, which deems the rest of the globe to be an inferior extension of Europe.

Chapters three through five analyze different modes of subverting colonial spatial paradigms in representations of the colonized body and discuss “postcolonial works that resist [the] spatial imperialism” outlined in chapter two (48). Spatial contestations in works by Mauritian author Ananda Devi, Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau and Austrian film director Michael Haneke feature “everyday negotiations that fictional characters carry out with […] colonially generated spatial divides, which include but are not limited to, national borders” (27). While the connections among these different works may not at first seem apparent, one of the strengths of the book is the manner in which it maintains a thread of continuity across chapters. If in chapter two, India is presented as a site where “colonial subjectivity need[s] to be refashioned to suit [France’s] expansionist desires” (106), chapter three outlines the impossibility that India can be a homeland in Devi’s Rue de la Poudrière (1988), Indian Tango (2007) and L’Ambassadeur triste (2015), novels that recenter the importance of lived experiences alongside colonially determined geopolitical scales such as the global and national. Located in either India or Mauritius, Devi’s characters resist the “essentialist identification” (129) imposed by imperialist politics as well as patriarchal understandings of geography. Chapter four shows “how spatiality is an important vector in the formation of human subjectivity” in Chamoiseau’s Texaco (1992), in which the eponymous heroine navigates and contests the gendered space of the French overseas department of Martinique (245).

While chapter four shows how the presence of metropolitan France is felt on the island of Martinique, chapter five examines the close interrelationship between France and Algeria in the film Caché (2005). Completing the tour around the world, the book’s last chapter returns to France and exposes the hidden colonial lies undergirding the national construction of France. Inspired by Édouard Glissant’s idea of “propétie du passé,” [sic] Chandna unsettles the linear progression between colonial and postcolonial temporal markers by showing that a fixed past is neither knowable nor achievable. Herein lies one of the novel’s most provocative contributions on subjectivity. Analyzing “colonially generated spatial paradigms” (16) allows Chandna not only to reveal “colonial-capitalist narrative[s]” (15) at work but also to resist rigid notions of postcolonial identity. Indeed, focusing on spatial narratives reveals the ways postcolonial resistance manifests in everyday spatial practices. As a result, the work succeeds in showing the value of investigating the deeply imbedded spatial assumptions that underpin ante- and anti-colonial identities.

In addition to “lay[ing] bare the spatial workings of colonialism” (15), Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces undertakes “the constant questioning of identities” (43). The importance of this enterprise to the book suggests Chandna’s broader interest in rethinking postcolonial identity formation, including the author's own. Chandna’s analysis also comprises a critical review of how canonical postcolonial writers perpetuate nationalist thinking, such as in Léopold Senghor’s view of negritude.

“Resituat[ing] postcolonial discourses alongside spatial analyses of literature and film” (16), Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces will appeal to scholars and students interested in geographies of literature and Francophone postcolonial writing. Moreover, while this work focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century expressions of postcolonial identity, the second chapter makes clear the continued impact of the geographical way of thinking that was established in nineteenth-century imperial expansion. Finally, scholars of literature outside of the French and Francophone context will find it a thought-provoking illustration of how literature can be read “as a spatial response to colonization” (183). In reading this book, I have been convinced that the continued effects of colonialism, namely inequality and injustice, are a spatial problem with the possibility of “spatial answers” (203).

Michelle C. Lee
Wellesley College