This essay takes up the relationship between modernism and postcolonialism through a comparison of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies. What Conrad understands as a crisis in narrative form is, I argue, a function of his understanding of history as the absolute incompatibility of modernity and tradition, the West and the rest. This is best seen in his inability to narrate the story of those “unconscious pilgrims of an exacting belief” that occupy the absent center of his text, precisely those subjects who are the focus of Ghosh's story of a repurposed slave ship transporting a group of indentured servants to Mauritius. Incommensurability is thus the object of Ghosh's critique, part of the imperial ideology his text works to undermine through its development of a universal history that emerges out of its multiple narrative structure. Sea of Poppies represents less a return to modernism, then, than the development of a new form of realism, one produced through a dialectical overcoming of the particular understanding of history that undergirds one aspect of modernist aesthetic form.

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