The Colonial City as inverted laboratory in Baumgartner's Bombay and The Calcutta Chromosome

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Author: Hilary Thompson
Date: Fall 2009
From: Journal of Narrative Theory(Vol. 39, Issue 3)
Publisher: Eastern Michigan University, Department of English Language and Literature
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,010 words

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Prologue: Cities of Invention and Intervention

When one thinks of politicized literary texts of the end of the last millennium, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities does not immediately come to mind. However aesthetically influential its lyrical urban thought experiments may have been, it would be unusual to consider the work a particularly socially engaged text. And yet its language found an unexpected echo on September 10, 2007 when Teng Biao and Hu Jia issued their open letter to the international community, "The Real China and the Olympics." Whereas Calvino's work focused on Marco Polo's journeys in the East and his reports to Kublai Khan on all his visited cities, most of them puzzlingly given classical names, the open letter focused on one Eastern capital city and the apparent transformations the inherited classical tradition of the Olympics would bring to it. But both Calvino's and Teng and Hu's descriptions are organized by a play of foils and reversals or, we might say, a logic of duality and peripety. Calvino's Polo gives us, for example, Anastasia, the city full of alluring objects that is in fact feeding off the desires of its inhabitants, so that "you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave" (12). Or there is Valdrada, the city built on a lakeside, bound to its mirror image, but in a relationship void of pleasing symmetry and marked rather by enmity and inversion: "The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them" (54). Or finally there are Eudoxia and Perinthia, one possessing a divine carpet showing the city's "true form" and the other planned precisely on a map of the heavens (96). In the chaotic, cacophonous Eudoxia that bears no apparent resemblance to the harmonious carpet, one is forced to conclude "that the true map of the universe is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fires, screams in the darkness" (97). In the celestially planned Perinthia, one finds "cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, obese men, bearded women" and yet "the worse cannot be seen; guttural howls are heard from cellars and lofts, where families hide children with three heads or six legs" (144). The city planners must admit errors in their mapping of the heavens or else "reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters" (145). How remarkable then that a rhetorical mode so similar to this supposedly magical realist style would have provided a way to address the international community, with Teng and Hu explaining to Olympic travelers of the world,

When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing, you will see skyscrapers, spacious streets, modern stadiums and enthusiastic people. You will see the truth, but not the whole truth, just as you see only the tip of an iceberg. You may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A218882464