chapter  6
20 Pages

Opera and the Passage of Literature: Joseph Conrad, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and the Cultural Dialectic of Abysmal Taste


Readers have often been struck by the operatic qualities of Conrad’s early Malay tales, and Conrad’s own comments in letters suggest that he thought of the Malay (or “Lingard”) trilogy of his first projected novel sequence in terms of a specifically operatic aesthetic.1 While the operatic effects in these Malay novels would seem to confirm the exoticist distortion critics have found in their Southeast Asian settings, I argue here that this operatic aesthetic helps identify the historical and cultural specificity of Conrad’s Malay Archipelago. This argument follows, in part, a recent trend in reading Conrad historically, and with renewed attention to the way his fiction registers the historical facts of colonial and anti-colonial contest. The significance of opera in Conrad’s East Indies fiction, however, is by no means only a matter of historical representation. As with all the approaches variously classified as “postcolonial” or “new historicist,” the question of aesthetic form remains a fundamental theoretical problem. To situate Conrad’s interest in opera historically also entails examining the theoretical challenge Conrad’s work presents for literary criticism at the beginning of the twenty-first century: in particular, the imperative to find a viable model for studying literature within a global and comparative historical-cultural perspective.2