Othello in the ghetto: trauma and intertextuality in Caryl Phillips's The Nature of Blood
Othello in the ghetto: trauma and intertextuality in Caryl Phillips's The Nature of Blood
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines intertextuality, which can also suggest a literary precedent that threatens to influence the actions of a character in the present. It studies two narratives that reference Shakespeare's Othello and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. The chapter discusses trauma fiction, which overlaps with postcolonial fiction in its use of intertextuality in order to allow previously silenced voices to tell their own story. It concludes that the intertextual recovery of formerly marginalised voices signals the ethical dimension of trauma fiction, which records and witnesses those that are ‘forgotten’ or overlooked in the narrative of history.
This chapter seeks to explore intertextuality as a key stylistic device of trauma fiction. The term represents the notion that every text constructs itself as a tissue of quotations, absorbing and transforming material from other texts. In this broad definition, textuality is necessarily also intertextuality. Intertextuality is also used in a more specific sense to refer to the particular set of plots, characters, images or conventions which a given text may bring to mind for its readers. As Judie Newman has pointed out in The Ballistic Bard(1995), many postcolonial writers have consciously used sustained intertextuality in their novels in order to revise literary classics and to take possession of their own stories. Intertextuality powerfully mimics and dramatises the political process, whereby those who were formerly colonised reclaim their own realities. In what follows, I will outline the characteristic features of intertextuality and suggest the ways in which it is equally suitable for the purposes of trauma fiction. I will discuss intertextuality with particular reference to Caryl Phillips's 1997 novel The Nature of Blood.
If intertextuality is deployed in a sustained manner in a work of fiction, the story that results will already be familiar to the reader from the original version on which the novelist draws. This can give a strong impression that a character in a novel is repeating the actions of a previously encountered story, that the reader knows in advance the end which is to come, and that the decisions and fate of the character are predestined from the outset. The motif of an inescapable trajectory or fate, which the novelist can produce through intertextuality, bears comparison with Freud's elaboration of the (p.90) repetition-compulsion in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1991, XI). Freud is fascinated with the pattern of suffering that characterises the lives of certain individuals, so that catastrophic events seem to repeat themselves for those who have already passed through them. These repetitions are notable because they do not seem to be motivated by the individual, but appear as if they were the result of possession by fate.
In The Nature of Blood, Phillips retells the story of Othello from the general's own perspective. The power of this section of the novel derives from the reader's foreknowledge of what is to come. Phillips cuts short Othello's story, narrating only the events up to and including his arrival on Cyprus. The reader is therefore forced to decide, from the evidence in the novel, whether Phillips's Othello will indeed (re-) enact the events of the play to their dreadful conclusion, or whether he has achieved sufficient insight and self-awareness to act differendy. I will argue that Phillips's Othello is indeed doomed to repeat the pattern of Shakespeare's play, but that it is Venetian society, rather than the influence of lago, which is the determining factor in his downfall. In Another World, Barker's intertextual reference to The Turn of the Screw likewise suggests that Miranda is fated to repeat the actions of James's governess and suffocate the child in her charge, so that the past is caught in a seemingly inescapable repetition-compulsion.
Intertextuality can gain powerful effects through repetition. However, it can also enter into a productive critical dialogue with literary classics which makes new meanings possible. John McLeod observes of the potential for an intertextual novel to depart from its source: ‘A re-writing takes the source-text as a point of inspiration and departure, but its meanings are not fully determined by it’ (168). By departing from the source text, intertextual fiction can suggest that the past is not necessarily always fated to repeat itself, but that alternative futures can be posited and played out. Intertextuality is thus, like trauma, caught in a curious and undecidable wavering between departure and return. The intertextual novelist can enact through a return to the source text an attempt to grasp what was not fully known or realised in the first instance, and thereby to depart from it or pass beyond it. Trauma fiction overlaps with postcolonial fiction in the novelist's challenge or resistance to the representations of marginalised or oppressed peoples or cultures in the source text. Classic literary works have frequendy constructed (unintentionally) racist or stereotyped depictions of colonised cultures. The novelist's (p.91) return to the source text can enable us to grasp a latent aspect of the text, and at the same time to depart from it into an alternative narrative construction.
Intertextual resistance can also take the form of critical dialogue with the author of the source text. In The Nature of Blood, Phillips resists the racism implicit in Shakespeare's portrait of Othello and demonstrates that the racist attitudes of the Venetians shape Othello's tragedy. The novelist can also challenge the source text by repossessing the voices of characters who have previously been marginalised or silenced. This technique clearly overlaps with post-colonial fiction, which seeks to reconstruct history, especially European history, from the point of view of those who have been marginalised or written out of the story. In psychoanalysis, that which is repressed will inevitably and disturbingly return to haunt the present. The uncanny or unheimlich experience occurs when that which has been marginalised or forgotten appears before us. The grand narratives of history, which are frequently constructed on the basis of exclusion, are haunted by those who have been written out or erased. McLeod observes: ‘At the limits of conventional knowledge, these figures return as disruptive “unhomely” presences that cannot be articulated through existing patterns of representation’ (2000: 220). These uncanny presences have the potential to disrupt the binary logic on which colonialist, nationalist and patriarchal narratives depend. Intertextual fiction gives voice to these unrealised presences, and can powerfully disrupt received modes of thinking. Such writing assumes responsibility for those who were previously unrepresented. The silenced voices articulate their own stories and bear witness to their former historical and cultural exclusion.
Intertextuality is profoundly disruptive of temporality. Judie Newman observes of its disjunctions: ‘intertextuality is achronological and anachronistic, inviting us to consider (in David Lodge's phrase) the influence of T. S. Eliot on Shakespeare’ (1995: 6). Newman points out that such atemporality is crucial to the postcolonial project of disrupting the grand narratives of history, which are based on temporal order and chronological sequence. In A New World Order(2002), Phillips discusses his own writing in similar terms, allying his experimentation with time and his disruption of conventional narrative order with a corresponding disruption of ‘national continuity’ (292). However, such temporal disruption also resonates with the symptomatology of trauma. For Caruth, trauma is defined by ‘the peculiar, temporal structure, the belatedness, of historical experience’, (p.92) which is ‘fully evident only in connection with another place, and in another time’ (1995: 8). Caruth's phraseology is richly suggestive for intertextual fiction. Writing in another place and at another time, the modern novelist is able to make fully evident that which was only partially available to the author of the source text. Writing from a contemporary perspective, Phillips can draw out of Othello issues of racial, national and cultural identity which may not have had the same cultural inflections for a Renaissance audience.
Intertextual writers necessarily produce works which are highly self-conscious and self-reflexive. Newman observes that intertextual fictions are ‘novels about novels, which problematise the relation of fiction to the world’ (1995: 4). For the postcolonial writer, Newman argues, such self-consciousness can make a powerful political point: ‘Whereas the British writer can merge with his or her society, since that society has, in a sense, appropriated reality, the postcolonial writer must avoid any loss of self-awareness. Postcolonial writers are therefore often at their politically sharpest, when they are also at their most “literary”’(1995: 4). Such a postcolonial strategy is certainly relevant to Phillips's fiction. The multiple reference points of his writing, which mingles European, African and Caribbean influences, signal to the reader that the novels cannot be fixed or identified as belonging to any one literary tradition or home.
In the context of trauma fiction, however, the self-conscious literariness of intertextual writing can serve an altogether different purpose. Modern novelists who represent in their fiction traumatic events of which they have no first-hand or personal experience often feel an undeniable sense of discomfort and unease. A self-conscious use of intertextuality can introduce reflexive distance into the narrative and, to repeat the words of Newman, problematise the relation of fiction to the world. In The Nature of Blood, Phillips includes in Eva's narrative intertextual references to Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl His representation of the Holocaust is self-consciously filtered through literary sources. I will argue that Phillips's self-reflexiveness in Eva's narrative reflects his desire to comment on the African-American politics which, he feels, separate him as a black writer from Jewish experiences and concerns. Even as his self-conscious literariness suggests his own distance from the reality of the Holocaust, his evocative and moving rendering of Eva's story simultaneously attests to the power of the sympathetic imagination. In a gesture that mirrors Stern's actions at the close of the novel, (p.93) Phillips seeks to overcome the isolation of individualism and to imaginatively reach ‘across the years’ (1997a: 213).
As a result of its extreme literariness, intertextual fiction highlights the role of the reader. McLeod observes: ‘A re-writing often implicates the reader as an active agent in determining the meanings made possible by the dialogue between the source-text and its re-writing’ (2000: 168). The intertextual novel constructs itself around the gap between the source text and its rewriting, and depends on the reader to assemble the pieces and complete the story. Bénédicte Ledent has commented of The Nature of Blood that it is a text which ‘encourage [s] the reader to produce meanings’ (2002: 115). Like all novelists who employ intertextuality, Phillips relies on the reader to find his own way through the novel's maze-like structure and to unravel the references in order to make sense of the narrative.
Intertextuality does not necessarily refer to an external source of reference but can operate within a single corpus or body of work. A writer's fiction can act in dialogue with its own precedents, whether plays, novels, poems or critical essays. In trauma fiction, this can create across an author's work a sense of endless repetition, as if the writing is haunted by an inarticulable force, which can neither be named and confronted nor passed beyond. This strategy is exemplified by W. G. Sebald, who relentlessly deploys images that powerfully but obliquely suggest the presence of the Holocaust. Phillips also uses this technique, although Ledent observes that he seeks to suggest both repetition and change: ‘the aim of the author is to make the reader see the same elements, the same well-known stories, from new angles’ (2002: 154–5). I will argue that there is a particularly close intertextual relation between The Nature of Blood and Phillips's earlier collection of essays, The European Tribe(1987). Read in conjunction, the two texts work through the same themes and concerns and shed light on each other. Most famously, Toni Morrison uses the technique in Jazz to interrogate the possibility of recovery from trauma. Identifying Jazz as a sequel to Beloved, Morrison encourages the reader to interpret the later work in intertextual relation to the former by suggesting that Wild is a (re) incarnation of Beloved. I will argue in Chapter 6 that Jazz hovers between repetition and departure, exemplifying the ambivalence and ambiguity of trauma.
In the above discussion, I have sought to demonstrate that intertextuality represents a key literary device in trauma fiction. Although the technique is widely used by postcolonial novelists, I have suggested that it nevertheless assumes new meaning and significance in (p.94) the context of trauma. Its uses are multi-faceted and highly flexible. If the novel closely follows the source text, intertextuality can be used to evoke the sense that a character is following an inescapable trajectory or is caught in a repetition-compulsion. If the source text is considerably revised, the novelist can highlight trauma as a mode of departure and suggest the possibility of change or progression. In stylistic terms, intertextuality allows the novelist to mirror the symptomatology of trauma by disrupting temporality or chronology, and to repossess the voices of previously silenced characters, enabling them to bear witness to their own exclusion. Intertextuality can reflect the dilemma of the novelist who represents traumatic experiences which he or she has not witnessed, or it can highlight the role of the reader who acts to fill in the gaps of the text and to actively assemble meaning. In what follows, I aim to demonstrate the effectiveness of intertextuality through a close reading of The Nature of Blood. In the novel, Phillips explores the trauma of European history and the text, along with the rest of Phillips's writing, comprises a key contribution to the emergent genre of trauma fiction.
The extravagant stranger
In The European Tribe, Phillips describes his first encounter with the city of Venice, explaining that he found himself curiously unable to respond to the aesthetic and cultural treasures which surrounded him: ‘I felt nothing’ (1987: 128). He compares his own (lack of) response with the feelings which he imagines Othello to have experienced on his first arrival in the city:
Unlike Othello, I am culturally of the West. I stood on the Rialto and thought how much more difficult it must have been for him, possessing a language and a past that were still present. Nothing inside me stirred to make me rejoice, ‘Ours is a rich culture’, or ‘I'm a part of this’. (1987: 128)
Phillips's response to Venice is determined by his underlying sense of its ‘Eurocentric and selfish history’ (1987:128). In The Nature of Blood, Venice is the setting for two of the stories that Phillips relates: his rewriting of OtheUo and his rendering of the history of the Jews of Portobuffole. In each story, Phillips seeks to explore the experiences of those who were culturally marginalised, excluded from the mainstream of Venetian society. He aims to document an alternative history of the city. Phillips's choice of Venice as a setting not only (p.95) allows him to repossess the marginalised voice of Shakespeare's Othello, but also to address the derided and excluded figure of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
Phillips's fictional rendering of the story of Othello was preceded by a critical essay on Shakespeare's play, published in The European Tribe. As J. M. Coetzee has noted, the essay evidences a degree of conceptual confusion. Phillips veers between viewing Othello as ‘a real-life historical person on whom Shakespeare is reporting’ and as ‘a character in a play who is misinterpreted by actors insensitive to the psychic baggage that an ex-slave must bring with him’ (1997: 40). Despite its weaknesses, however, Phillips's essay provides valuable insight into his subsequent treatment of Othello in The Nature of Blood. Ironically entitled ‘A Black European Success’, the essay argues that Othello's preoccupation with proving himself the equal of his Venetian masters and his anxious desire to integrate into Venetian society derive from his failure to come to terms with his own former slavehood. Phillips designates Othello's profound insecurity, originating in his troubled sense of his own slave past, as ‘the true nature of [his] psychological anguish’ (1987:45). Othello is a military man, a man of action. He is not a thinker, and at times lacks insight into his own situation. In itself, this is not enough to bring about his downfall. However, when this is combined with the hypocrisy and racism of Venetian society, Othello's fate is sealed. Phillips observes of his tragic downfall: ‘It is not a “flaw” in the man, it is what you have made him into. […] [T]he pressures placed upon him rendered his life a tragedy’ (1987: 46).
Before we meet Shakespeare's Othello, we learn that he is an indisputably great general and military leader, but within the opening scenes we also hear him called ‘the thick lips’ (I, i, 66), ‘an old black ram’ (I, i, 88), ‘the devil’ (I, i, 91), ‘a Barbary horse’ (I, i, 111–12), ‘a lascivious Moor’ (I, i, 126) and an ‘extravagant and wheeling stranger’ (I, i, 136). He is accused of ‘making the beast with two backs’ (I, i, 116–7) with Desdemona and of drawing her to his ‘sooty bosom’ (I, i, 70) using ‘foul charms’ (I, ii, 73). Those who abuse him include a Venetian gentleman, a senator and his own trusted Ancient, lago. It is clear from the outset that, in spite of his capabilities, Othello's position in Venice is insecure and constantly threatened. He is made continually aware that his origins do not match the honours that are heaped upon him, and the colour of his skin acts as the indisputable visible marker of his difference. Phillips observes that throughout the play, Othello works within the parameters of an uncertain authority: (p.96) ‘Life for him is a game in which he does not know the rules’ (1987: 47). He lacks a close friend or confidant who can explain to him the baffling complexity of Venetian society. Othello therefore seeks the quickest route to social acceptance, namely marriage. He wins the hand of Desdemona and secretly marries her and shortly after he wins the approval of the Venetian nobility, although they act with political expediency for they need Othello to sail to Cyprus and defeat the invading Turks. For Phillips, it is at this point in the play that Othello's doom is sealed for he begins to relax, especially once the Duke himself has given his approval of the marriage. He observes: ‘It is now that the tragedy commences. But it can do so only because it is precisely at this moment of’ ‘triumph’’ that Othello begins to forget that he is black’ (1987:48).
On his arrival in Cyprus, Othello displays a new-found confidence and tranquillity. However, Phillips notes that he remains troubled by the problems which haunted him in Venice: ‘there still exists an impulsive and insecure man who can best express himself in terms of physical violence, which is […] the first refuge of the desperate’ (1987: 49). For Phillips, the events of the rest of the play unfold inevitably from this point. Othello dismisses Cassio and appoints lago to his post because of his need for a friend in his perplexing and confusing social surroundings. His increasing insecurity and suspicion render him vulnerable to Iago's influence. His readiness to resort to violence on the flimsiest of material evidence ends in the terrible murder of Desdemona. If Othello is finally abandoned in the play it is not, as he suspects, by his wife but by Venetian society. However, Phillips also makes clear that Othello carries some of the blame for his own downfall in presuming that he could leave behind him his African background: ‘From what we are given it is clear that he denied, or at least did not cultivate his past. He relied upon the Venetian system, and ultimately he died a European death - suicide’ (1987: 51). Othello's failure to establish or maintain a peer group means that he has no means of reinforcing his identity and is left entirely alone. Phillips concludes his reading of the play with the fateful observation: ‘He has to play by Venetian rules, and historically the dice are loaded against black men in the European arena’ (1987: 50).
Phillips's treatment of the Othello story in The Nature of Bfood is elliptical to the point that he does not even name his speaker, but his earlier reading of Shakespeare's play sheds light on the novel. Phillips creates an intertextual patterning across his own writing, so that the (p.97) reader is encouraged by the oblique and truncated narrative in the novel to search for its significance in the critical work. Phillips revises Shakespeare's OtheUo'm two main areas: the omission of lago, and the decision to end the story with Othello's stay on Cyprus. Iago's absence enables Phillips to focus on Othello's internal conflicts and dilemmas, and the insecurities that arise from his own unresolved past. The removal of lago also allows Phillips to emphasise that racism and prejudice are not tied to an individual, but are endemic within Venetian society. This point is amplified through Phillips's portrayal of the Venetian treatment of the Jews, both in the Ghetto and in the trial of the Jews of Portobuffole. The omission of lago from the novel opens up an intertextual dialogue with the source text, in which Phillips challenges Shakespeare's treatment of racism and its effects.
Iago is not entirely absent from Phillips's narrative, however. The doge grants that the general's wife should be allowed to accompany him to Cyprus, and Othello entrusts her safety to his ‘Ancient’. Although lago has not yet entered the story, he is waiting in the wings ready to take his part in Othello's downfall. Phillips's decision to end his narrative with the arrival on Cyprus has met with differing critical responses. For Marina Warner, Shakespeare's tragedy ‘necessarily throws its long shadow’ over Phillips's novel and ‘the reader cannot dare to hope for a happy ending’ (1997: 23). For Bénédicte Ledent, however, Phillips's withholding of the conclusion holds an altogether different significance: ‘Shakespeare's ending is not only suspended but cancelled, as though superseded by the potential for interpretive revision’ (159). In the context of trauma fiction, Phillips's gesture assumes significance on its own terms. By leaving the story incomplete, Phillips suspends Othello between repetition and change. His narrative mimics the undecidability between departure and return which is inherent to trauma. It is up to the reader to determine whether Phillips's Othello is doomed to repeat the same mistakes and errors of judgement as Shakespeare's protagonist, or whether he can indeed avoid the fate that he is seemingly predestined to follow.
Reading The Nature of Blood alongside Phillips's essay on OtheUo, it does indeed seem, as Warner suggests, that his version is weighted towards the downfall of the protagonist. Phillips explicitly states in his essay that Othello's fate is already sealed by the time of his arrival on Cyprus. If the outcome is certain, the rest of the story becomes redundant. Phillips's Othello betrays all of the traits that render the tragedy inevitable. Lacking a grasp of the language and bewildered by (p.98) Venetian custom, he is an isolated and vulnerable figure. Having no one on whom to rely, he turns to marriage as a means of gaining social acceptance, hoping that it might lessen the hostility of the Venetians towards him. He imagines that marriage connects him to the heart of Venetian society. However, he also realises that it irrevocably cuts him adrift from his past. Phillips's Othello, unlike Shakespeare's, already has a wife and child in Africa and he feels uneasy at betraying them in his new marriage. He defensively constructs unconvincing self-justifications: ‘I continually reminded myself that my native wife was not a wife in the manner that a Venetian might understand the term, yet I wondered if this were not simply a convenience of interpretation on my part’ (1997a: 146). The continuing hold on him of the past that he seeks to relinquish is symbolised by the gold bracelet, which represents a link with Venetian society that he can never remove, even as it inescapably recalls the shackles of slavery that continue to bind his consciousness like mind-forged manacles.
On his arrival in Venice, Phillips's Othello walks the streets and alleyways of the city, exploring its every aspect.1 He is repeatedly described as crossing bridges, which symbolise the potential for cultural crossing in the novel. In his explorations, Othello is confronted with an alternative view of the city which reveals its ‘rotting’ (109) and ‘stagnant’ (115) core. Away from the Grand Canal, Venice is a city of ‘flimsy structures’ (115), a society that is not as stable or secure as it seeks to project. Once he is married, however, Othello ceases his nocturnal wanderings and confines himself indoors. He no longer takes an interest in the view outside: ‘I turn from the shuttered windows and […] gaze upon my wife’ (107). The shuttered windows mirror the closed windows and windowless walls of the Jewish Ghetto, although Othello remains wilfully blind to this connection. Although he professes to be happy in marriage, there are ominous signs of the impending tragedy. Othello refers to his new wife as ‘an object of beauty and danger’ (148) and he considers himself to be her ‘lord and master’ (144). Although she is able to alleviate his misery to some degree, Othello remains doubtful that his wife can ‘mollify the more fundamental pain in my heart’ (160).
Lest the reader is left in any remaining doubt as to the tragedy to come, Phillips interrupts Othello's story with the voice of a late twentieth-century, African-American black nationalist. The speaker castigates Othello for forgetting his past and seeking to integrate himself into European society, and accuses him of transforming (p.99) himself into a ‘figment of the Venetian imagination’ (183). Othello receives clear and unambiguous warning of what is about to happen: ‘A wooden ladle lightly dipped will soon scoop you up and dump you down into the gutter. Brother, jump from her bed and fly away home’ (183). Although the speaker claims Othello as a brother, his tone is frequently hostile and lambasting. It is also unclear that the solution that he offers provides any answers to Othello's situation. His ‘home’ is no more in Africa than it is in Venice. The voice, which is not to be confused with Phillips's own, does not take into account the broader import of the novel which demonstrates that in the modern African diaspora, as in the Jewish diaspora, the concept of ‘home’ is both profoundly unsettled and painfully charged.
In Phillips's rewriting of OtheUo various aspects of intertextuality converge to powerful effect. Interrupting the story on the island of Cyprus, Phillips highlights the role of the reader in interpreting the significance of the text and determining whether Othello can indeed follow a different trajectory. His emphasis on Othello's insecurities and the prejudices of Venetian society suggest that Phillips's protagonist will indeed follow a fatal course, so that the character seems to be caught in a repetition-compulsion. In withholding the ending from us, however, Phillips suggests the possibility of an alternative course and signals the ambiguous status of trauma between departure and return. The twentieth-century voice that interrupts Othello's story is suggestive of a disrupted chronology. A modern speaker with knowledge of Shakespeare's play seeks to intervene in the action and prevent the narrative from reaching its denouement. The story of Othello does not stand alone in Phillips's novel, however. It is placed alongside three other narratives: the Jews of Portobuffole, Eva's story and the narrative of Stern. In what follows, I will consider first the complex and ambiguous relationship that Phillips constructs between Othello and the Jews of Venice.
In the Ghetto
In The Nature of Blood, Phillips draws on the setting of Venice to connect Othello to the Jews of Portobuffole. Bryan Cheyette (2000) observes that Venice has long been represented in literature both as the decaying heart of European civilisation and as a liminal space where Europe and Africa or Europe and the East meet. Through trade, the city attracted a considerable influx of marginal peoples who were barred from official citizenship. In the Renaissance, foreigners (p.100) lived in Venice as permanent immigrants. Albanians, Turks, Greeks and Germans were segregated from the Venetian population in guarded buildings. Most famously, the Venetians confined the city's immigrant Jews to the segregated space of the Ghetto, which was legally established in 1516. The Jews lived in cramped conditions in the Ghetto, and were obliged to return there at dusk each evening. At nightfall, the gates were locked, the shutters of the houses that faced outwards were closed and police patrolled the exterior. As Richard Sennett comments, the existence of the Ghetto arose out of and was maintained by a conflict of needs in Venice: ‘the Ghetto represented a compromise between the economic need of Jews and […] aversions to them, between practical necessity and physical fear’ (1994: 216).
Phillips includes an essay on Venice in The European Tribe. Here he acknowledges the former imperial might of the city, but also points out that behind its glory lay a pervasive racism and xenophobia: ‘[s] ixteenth-century Venetian society both enslaved the black and ridiculed the Jew’ (1987: 45). Phillips gestures towards Othello and The Merchant of Venice, and implicitly answers Tony Tanner's query in his study of literary Venice: ‘why did Shakespeare set his two plays with figures from marginalized groups - a black, a Jew - as protagonists, in Venice?’ (1992: 5). Phillips recognises the pragmatism at work in Venice's treatment of the Jews, who were tolerated as usurers. In a passage that resonates with his literary treatment of the Ghetto in The Nature of Blood, Phillips observes: ‘The Venetian ghetto was the original ghetto, the model for all others in the world - places characterized by deprivation and persecution’ (1987: 52). Phillips deploys the Ghetto as a ‘model’ of racism and segregation in order to construct a history of endless European victimisation and persecution. He places the Venetian Ghetto not only alongside the Jewish ghettos of the Holocaust, but also in connection with those ghettos that have socially and culturally segregated black communities and other minority groups.2
In The Nature of Blood, Phillips includes an encyclopaedic definition of Venice, which emphasises the city's cultural significance but includes no mention of Othello or the Jews, signalling the omission of foreign or marginalised presences from the official version of history. The ambivalent and hypocritical Venetian attitude to the Jews is revealed in another ‘official’ document, the Bill of the Grand Council. With superb irony, Phillips reveals the highly compromised attitude of the Venetians to the Jews of the city: ‘We intend to tolerate (p.101) some bullying and maltreatment towards the Jews who reside among us, but we want them to be able to stay and live in our domain without being submitted to excessive damage and insults’ (1997a: 99–100). In The Nature of Blood, the Jews arrive in Venice as foreigners, and they remain as foreigners within the city. Phillips suggests that this is not exclusively due to Venetian mistrust and suspicion. The Jews contribute to their own segregation through their unwillingness to accommodate to their new surroundings: ‘the Jews wished to speak only among themselves. Further, they chose not to eat or drink with the Christians, and they refused to attend to their heavy German accents’ (51). The separatism of the Jews forms a stark contrast to Othello's anxious desire to assimilate into Venetian society.
Phillips's description of the Jews' self-segregation refers to Shylock in The Merchant ofVenicewho pursues a similar policy of separatism: ‘I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you’ (I, iii, 33–5) .3 In The European Tribe, Phillips names Shylock as a figure whom he particularly admires, precisely because of his separatist sentiments: ‘Shylock has always been my hero. He makes it uncompromisingly clear that he wants nothing to do with Christians beyond his business’ (1987:55). Linking Shylock's principles to black-identity politics, Phillips argues that ‘there is a time when such a debate is necessary’ (1987: 55). In The Nature of Blood, however, Phillips is more concerned to indicate the dangers of separatism. Although the segregation of the Ghetto is initially imposed on the Jews, it is quickly embraced by them in a defensive mentality, which views the walls of the Ghetto as a ‘protection against the many cold hearts that opposed their people’ (130). Phillips suggests that separatism renders the Jews particularly vulnerable to attack, for they are ‘herded en masse and enclosed in one defenceless pen’ (130).
The history of the Jews of Portobuffole proves particularly instructive, for they do not assimilate into the surrounding community. The neighbours' ignorance regarding their customs and practices hardens into prejudice, which culminates in accusations that the Jews have murdered a Christian child and drunk his blood. The allegations against the Jews arise out of the wild speculations and rumours regarding their practices which result, in turn, from ignorance. The Portobuffole Jews are tried in Venice, and the ambivalent Venetian attitude towards the Jews is put to the test. Prejudice against the Jews and ignorance of their customs prevail, and the accused are sentenced to die by public burning. If the modern voice that intrudes (p.102) into Othello's narrative lambasts him for assimilationist attitudes and practices, it is clear that separatism does not provide an alternative solution.
The Venetian Ghetto and the Jews of Portobuffole provide a powerful counterpoint to Othello's narrative. However, Phillips also describes Othello's own entry into the Venetian Ghetto. In The Nature of Blood, Othello enters the Ghetto on two separate occasions. His first entry occurs during his nocturnal wanderings through the city and is precipitated by curiosity. Othello finds himself oppressed by the Ghetto and is overcome with relief on finding himself in familiar territory once again. He is puzzled by the nature and strength of his response: ‘it appeared somewhat shameful to me that a man who had endured many wars and faced much danger should panic on finding himself in unfamiliar streets in an admittedly civilized environment’ (132). Othello's panic results from his realisation that there is a less ‘civilized’ aspect to Venice, a fact that he has already glimpsed in the shabby and unappealing side canals. Othello recognises as he walks through the Ghetto that ‘penalties for offending the morals of the people of Venice were severe’ (130). His second entry into the Ghetto occurs as he himself is set on a course which will offend the morals of Venice. He seeks a Jewish scholar to read to him the letter from Desdemona and write down his reply. The insight which Othello gained on his last visit to the Ghetto has been lost and his blindness is mirrored in the effects of the winter fog. Although Othello notes that the Jew responds to his passionate letter by letting ‘a smile play around his thin lips’ (143), he fails to recognise the danger of his position or to acknowledge the correspondences between his own situation and that of the Venetian Jews. Othello's entries into the Ghetto afford him a clear insight into the xenophobia at the heart of the Venetian empire, but they also chart his increasing blindness with regard to his own situation and predicament.
Phillips's placing of Othello's story in the context of the Venetian Jews and the Jews of Portobuffole (and beyond that, as we shall see, in the context of the Jewish Holocaust and the founding of Israel) is suggestive of a complex interconnection between black and Jewish identity. In The European Tube, Phillips quotes Frantz Fanon, who recalls the advice of one of his teachers: ‘Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you’ (1987: 54). Discussing this statement, Phillips draws on his own experience to develop an analysis of the interrelationships between blacks and Jews. Growing up in Britain and offered no representations of (p.103) colonialism or slavery, Phillips found that the Jews were the only minority group discussed in the context of racism. He consequently identified himself with them: ‘I vicariously channelled a part of my hurt and frustration through the Jewish experience’ (1987: 54). Situating the Holocaust as an internalised component of his own identity configuration, Phillips suggests that his relation to Jewish history is based on a sympathetic approach.4 The Nature of Blood represents his most sustained and ambitious attempt to place the two histories together. However, Phillips is not seeking to combine the two, but rather, in the words of Ledent, to ‘set up a dynamic network of overlappings and clashings that preserves the relational fluidity of blacks and Jews’ (2002: 153). Phillips's exploration of the complex interrelations between black and Jewish cultures suggests a productive and dynamic cross-culturalism, which works against the tribalisms of both racism and separatist politics.
Phillips's elaboration of the personal significance of the Jewish Holocaust strongly echoes the sentiments of cultural theorist Paul Gilroy. In Between Camps(2001), Gilroy notes the pervasive presence of the Holocaust in postwar Britain:
The world of my childhood included the incomprehensible mystery of the Nazi genocide. I returned to it compulsively like a painful wobbly tooth. It appeared to be the core of the war, and its survivors were all around us. Their tattoos intrigued me. (2001: 4)
Like Phillips, Gilroy identified his own experiences of racism with the Holocaust and he sought to understand the relationship between the two: ‘I struggled with the realization that [the Jews'] suffering was somehow connected with the ideas of “race” that bounded my own world with the threat of violence’ (2001: 4). Gilroy calls for an intensive and sustained exploration of the interconnectedness of black and Jewish cultures, and he questions: ‘why does it remain so difficult for so many people to accept the knotted intersection of histories […]?’ (1998: 287). He argues that a dialogue on the community of experience between blacks and Jews could prove invaluable for our understanding of modern racism: ‘there might be something useful to be gained from setting these histories closer to each other not so as to compare them, but as precious resources’ (1993: 217). The Nature of Blood responds to Gilroy, and the latter's writing can be regarded as an important context or intertext for Phillips. Phillips combines Gilroy's call for dialogue between black and Jewish cultures with the setting of Renaissance Venice, which (p.104) allows him to refer intertextually to Shakespeare's black and Jewish protagonists, Othello and Shylock. In suggesting connections and interrelationships between his characters, and in allowing different instances of trauma to address each other, Phillips departs from the isolation imposed by traumatic experience. Phillips's narrative technique of allowing his characters to speak without the intervention of an authorial voice enables individuals from different cultures and with varied traumatic histories to address each other, and it is the role of the reader to listen to the resonances and dissonances between them. However, in exploring the interrelations between blacks and Jews, Phillips undeniably treads on sensitive ground. In the section that follows, I will explore Phillips's writing of Eva's story as an intervention into contemporary identity politics, and I will suggest that he posits the trauma of racism as a link or connection between blacks and Jews.
The ghost of Anne Frank
Phillips has recently spent half of each year living and working in the United States and this experience has afforded him insight into the tensions that exist between the Jewish and African-American communities. In The European Tribe, he notes: ‘One of the aspects of black America that I have never been able to understand fully is the virulent anti-Semitism that seems to permeate much black thought’ (1987: 52). Commenting on black-Jewish relations, Bryan Cheyette points to the significance of Louis Farrakhan's increasing influence within the African-American community:
While anti-Semitism in general is on the decline in the United States, most agree that it is on the increase in the black community which is largely due to the influence of the Nation of Islam on poorer African Americans. Cornell West, Henry Louis Gates and bell hooks have all intervened against the Nation of Islam to rightly temper its worst excesses and its extreme cultural nationalism and politics of separation. (2000:57)
Cheyette notes that tension between the two communities also arises from the cultural dominance of the Holocaust as the model of racism in the United States.5 The European Holocaust has at times acted as a welcome and convenient distraction from those instances of historical oppression - the history of slavery, the genocide of the native Americans - which are more immediate and closer to home. In The Nature of Blood, Phillips seeks to intervene in this debate by deliberately (p.105) and provocatively juxtaposing black and Jewish histories. The positive critical reception and success of the novel in the United States may owe something to its European setting, so that although Phillips comments on black-Jewish relations, it does not feel too close to home. As Ledent observes, the novel allows American readers ‘to view their identity dilemma from a distance’ (2002: 154).
The tensions between Jews and African-Americans extend as far as the literary establishment. Cheyette comments: ‘It is clear that the present-day histories of Zionism and black-Jewish relations in the United States […] ha[ve] reinforced the racialised separate spheres between Jews and other ethnicities within the academy’ (2000: 59). Against these identity politics, Phillips insists that authorial identity places no restrictions on the fictional or historical imagination. As a black writer, he not only tackles the subject of the Jewish Holocaust, but also assumes the voice of a female Holocaust survivor for one of the novel's primary speakers. This makes a strong political statement, but also complicates and undermines the notion of a fixed identity. His fictional rendering of the Holocaust finds strong endorsement in Salman Rushdie's impassioned observation on literary tribalism:
Literature is self-validating. That is to say, a book is not justified by its author's worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been written. There are terrible books that arise directly out of experience, and extraordinary imaginative feats dealing with themes which the author has been obliged to approach from the outside. Literature is not in the business of copyrighting certain themes for certain groups. Books become good […] when they endanger the artist by reason of what he has, or has not, artistically dared.
(Rushdie, 1991: 14)
In Eva's story, Phillips makes extensive intertextual reference to Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl The ghost of Anne Frank haunts the margins of Eva's narrative in a form which is unsettling precisely because it is oblique and indirect. Eva herself initially seems to represent the figure of Anne Frank. Early in the novel we learn that, like Anne, she has a sister called Margot who is her sole reason for staying alive: ‘I simply cling to the image of my sister’ (18). Eva starts to keep a diary which she addresses to her absent sister, just as Anne addressed her diary entries to her imaginary friend Kitty. However, Eva does not maintain the journal: ‘within a week I gave it up, for I could no longer summon the energy’ (67). Once the personalities of the sisters are described, however, it seems that Phillips's Margot assumes the character of Anne Frank as she is popularly conceived. She is ‘fanciful’ (89) and a ‘dreamer’ (23). She has a lively interest in (p.106) fashions, movies and film stars and, like Anne Frank, she has papered the walls of her bedroom with pictures of Hollywood stars. She has a boyfriend named Peter, echoing the name of Peter van Daan. In Eva's imagination, her sister has reached America and fulfilled her ambition of becoming a Hollywood star. Following the posthumous publication of her diaries, ‘Anne Frank’ was, of course, an overwhelming American success, appearing both in Hollywood and on Broadway.
Ledent argues that one of Phillips's key motivations in invoking the figure of Anne Frank is to challenge the popularised versions of her life and to offer a less anodyne figure: ‘Phillips rescues the young diarist from the sanitised interpretations of her writing that celebrated such sentences as “I still believe people are really good at heart”’ (157). Eva displays all too human faults and prejudices. She dislikes the Jews from Eastern Europe whom she considers to be ‘dirty’ and ‘uncultivated’ (170). In despair over her future, she forges a letter from Gerry, the soldier in the camp, inviting her to come to England and marry him. The intertextual references also serve a secondary purpose, however, in constructing a literary version of the Holocaust which is filtered through the text of Anne Frank's Diary. In the figure of Rosa, who always has a woollen shawl wrapped around her, Phillips also refers obliquely to Cynthia Ozick's Holocaust novella, The Shawl(1990). Through intertextuality, Phillips distances his text from the reality of the Holocaust, providing a space for reflection on the ethics of representation involved in his writing. Phillips's self-consciousness acknowledges his own indirect and highly mediated modes of access to the Holocaust.
Margot and Anne Frank both died of typhus in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in the winter of 1944–45. Phillips signals the horror of their deaths in Eva's dread of typhus in the camps. Eva does not fall victim to typhus, however, for Phillips envisages in the novel an alternative history in which Anne Frank survived, and he imagines what her fate might have been. Ledent argues of Eva's narrative: ‘it goes beyond the famous diary and projects the young woman's life into a future she never knew’ (2002: 156) .6 Phillips insists that such a future would have been difficult and troubled. Although Eva asserts that the worst is now over, her story reveals that after the war she is broken by loss and grief. Her narrative demonstrates that it is impossible to both ‘remember’ and ‘move on’ (157). In a desperate attempt to escape from her past, Eva forges the letter that will enable her to move to London and make a new start. However, her lone-liness (p.107) is reinforced when she realises that Gerry can offer her no support. In hospital, she finds that her past has followed her to Britain in the form of a strange young woman with a ‘swathe of red around her mouth’ (199). This figure is an uncanny double of Eva herself who, on the eve of her departure for London, sought to distinguish herself from the other women in the camp by wearing lipstick. However, the young woman also represents all of those whom Eva has lost and whose absence she mourns: Margot, Rosa, Bella, her mother. In an attempt to elude this figure, Eva slices her wrists with the knife which is left for her to cut Gerry's cake.
Through Margot's fate, Phillips suggests the vulnerability of those who were in hiding. The Aryan-looking Margot is sheltered in the attic of a family home and she spends eighteen months imprisoned in a tiny room. In her intense loneliness, Margot discovers an imaginary friend named Siggi, who represents a darker version of Kitty. The arrival of Siggi suggests the onset of mental illness in Margot, which worsens when she is raped by the man who is sheltering her. When he comes to her room a second time, Margot screams and is arrested and we learn that she dies ‘on a cold grey morning in a country that was not her own’ (174). In Eva and Margot, Phillips provides two alternative versions of the Anne Frank story, both aimed at revising and challenging popular myths and misconceptions. In Eva's fate, Phillips insists that survival is not necessarily a happy ending and her suicide echoes the deaths of other famous survivors such as Paul Celan, Jean Amery and Primo Levi.7 Margot's story demonstrates that not all of those who sheltered Jews were as selfless in their motivations as the helpers of the Secret Annexe.
Phillips's intertextual reference to Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl serves various narrative functions. He engages in intertextual dialogue with popular misconceptions of Anne Frank's story which highlight a consistently optimistic voice. Phillips suggests that Anne Frank was both more human and more vulnerable than this suggests. His alternative history indicates that death is only one form of suffering and that life itself can sometimes be equally unbearable. Both Eva and Margot choose to die in preference to living in solitude and madness. Intertextuality also affords Phillips a metatextual dimension to his writing, so that his representation of the Holocaust is filtered through previous literary sources and he is able to signal his own position as a writer at a historical and cultural remove from the events that he portrays. The sympathetic and moving rendering of Eva's story becomes all the more powerful because the reader is aware of Phillips's imaginative intervention into the past.
(p.108) Imaginary homelands
Eva's solitary contemplation of her future, when she remains in the liberated concentration camp, is interrupted by an interview with an official who asks her if she intends to return home. Eva violently rejects the very notion of ‘home’: ‘How can she use the word “home”? It is cruel to do so in such circumstances […] “Home” is a place where one feels a welcome’ (37). In the Displaced Persons camp, Eva encounters the dreams of other survivors that they are soon to find a home in Israel: ‘After hundreds of years of trying to be with others, of trying to be others, we are now pouring in the direction of home’ (45). Although Eva desperately yearns for a home, she increasingly associates the notion of home less with a geographical place than with her family and the memory of her past, and finally with death. She ominously argues that the place which she must find is the ‘place to which Margot now belongs’ (46) and, as she is about to commit suicide, she observes: ‘I am tired. And I want to come home’ (199).
The Zionist sentiments which are expressed by the women in the camp echo the politics of Eva's uncle, Stephan Stern, whom we meet at the opening of the novel at a Displaced Persons camp on Cyprus. It is 1946 and the British, who hold the League of Nations mandate over Palestine, are diverting boatloads of Jewish refugees from Haifa to transit camps in Cyprus. Stern has been active since the 1930s in Hagganah, the armed Jewish underground movement, and he has given up his family and homeland to fight for the Zionist cause. He speaks of Israel in idealistic and egalitarian terms as a country which welcomes ‘the displaced and the dispossessed’ (5). He believes that Israel represents a fresh start both for himself and for the refugees who surround him on Cyprus: ‘The new world is just beginning’ (9). Like Eva, however, he finds that the past is not so easy to escape. This is suggested in the militaristic impulses of the young refugees who, at the end of the war, ‘were acting as though their war had yet to begin’ (8). Stern's fantasies of the homeland are also undercut by his own longing for another home, the country which he left behind but which continues to haunt his imagination. For Stern, as for Eva, the notion of home is attached as much to memory as to geography: ‘I still carry within me the old world that I once cast aside’ (11).
The reality of Stern's projected homeland is glimpsed at the close of the novel, which portrays him in Israel some fifty years later. Phillips portrays a man as isolated in Israel as Eva found herself in (p.109) Britain. Elderly and lonely, Stern must go to a club in order to meet ‘a companion, someone to talk to, a friend even’ (206). Here he encounters Malka, an Ethiopian Jew who is profoundly disenchanted with the Promised Land. During a chaste night spent at a hotel together, Malka tells Stern of her journey to Israel and her experiences there. Like Eva and other Jews who endured the transports, Malka's journey ominously begins with being herded and ‘stored like […] cattle’ (200). Malka and her family are promised that they are going ‘home’ (203). However, they arrive in Israel only to find themselves the victims of racial prejudice. Reflecting on Malka's fate, Stern recognises that the Ethiopian Jews ‘belonged to another place’ (212) although, as in the case of Othello, it is not entirely clear where this might be. This inevitably raises the question of where Stern himself belongs. In his loneliness, he increasingly returns to the past. Inhabiting another place and another time, Stern experiences the mingling of past and present as his nieces, Margot and Eva, play around the bench on which he sits and he finds ‘his arms outstretched, reaching across the years’ (213). The principles of homecoming and settlement are displaced in Stern's remembering, which represents a movement in time. The exclusion that Malka and Stern experience in Israel is replaced by a gesture of inclusiveness and it seems that, if Stern cannot achieve a new beginning, there is nevertheless a positive ending, which finds value and meaning in the past and views it as a tentative point of departure.
The Nature of Blood asserts a diasporic notion of identity, especially in the figure of Malka who, for Coetzee, ‘has ended one diasporic exile only to embark on another’ (1997: 40). Phillips explores a range of diasporic histories and works in close intertextual dialogue with Gilroy. The concept of diaspora is exemplary for Gilroy because it breaks the dual focus on ethnicity and nationality which has been emphasised in recent Euro-American criticism and theory. He privileges the figure of the diasporic exile or migrant, who does not have secure roots tying him to a specific national or ethnic group. Instead, he must continually plot for himself new cultural routes, both physical and imaginative, which take him to many places and put him in contact with different peoples. The forging of new cultural routes makes possible the construction of new narrative or literary routes. The notion of diaspora is also important for Gilroy because it connects black and Jewish history and allows him to assert and explore a kinship between the two cultures. The trauma of exile, or the forced separation from one's homeland, (p.110) finds new meaning as a potential point of connection or dialogue between blacks and Jews.
Phillips has embraced Gilroy's ideas and The Nature of Blood represents his most developed exploration of the diasporic theme. We have noted that the hybrid city of Venice allows him to encompass multiple and intertwining histories. Throughout the novel, Phillips evidences sympathy for the Jewish diaspora and suggests complex interconnections between black and Jewish cultures. He also reflects on the intersections between blacks and Jews by carefully paralleling the stories of Othello and Stern. Both characters give up a homeland, a wife and a child to make a new beginning in a different country. Both pass through the island of Cyprus which represents, in Ledent's terms, ‘a liminal place, a border zone, halfway between the West and the East’ (150). Each finds that a sense of attachment to place, however comforting or reassuring, can prove destructive in the longer term. On Cyprus, Othello looks forward to returning ‘home to Venice’ (174) and reaching the end of his wandering. He cannot see the protective walls that he is erecting around himself, isolating himself indoors and protecting himself from reality. Stern similarly looks forward to settling in his new homeland, and is likewise blind to the walls of nationalism which will soon be erected in Israel. As Jacqueline Rose points out, even as Israel came into being to bring the migrancy of the Jews to an end, it produced a new people without statehood, ‘not just by oversight or brutal self-realizing intention, but as if it had symptomatically to engender within its own boundaries the founding condition from which it had fled’ (1996: 13). Ledent likewise observes of Othello and the Jewish refugees respectively: ‘Ironically, the new racial and national ghettos that both recreate around themselves after their passage through Cyprus […] are not dramatically different from the ghettos imposed upon them while they were still wanderers, as if the end of exile tended to encourage a form of self-definition relying on the othering of the others’ (2002: 141). Once again, it seems that the past is not easy to escape, but returns to haunt both individual and culture.8
Influenced by Gilroy's writing, Phillips accords the notion of home considerable significance. Gilroy is sharply critical of the notion of ‘home’, quoting Nietzsche in The Black Atlantic.‘Among Europeans today there is no lack of those who are entitled to call themselves homeless in a distinctive and honourable sense […] We feel disfavour for all ideals that might lead one to feel at home even in this fragile, broken time of transition; as for “realities”, we do not believe (p.111) that they will last’ (1993: 1). Phillips does not entirely dismiss the notion of home, but tentatively redefines it as a mnemonic and imaginative site. In The Nature of Blood, any attempts to claim a national ‘home’ seem doomed to failure. Othello does not belong in either Venice or Africa, but he lacks the insight and imagination to forge new cultural routes. Malka belongs in ‘another place’ (212) which remains unspecified, although it is clearly neither Ethiopia nor Israel. Stern does not belong in modern Israel and looks imaginatively to the old world of Europe, which no longer exists, and the new world of America where his wife and child live but which he himself rejected. Israel itself, in the sense of home, cannot exist in the novel except as a form of yearning or desire. As soon as it is realised in more concrete terms, disenchantment inevitably follows. Phillips reinvests the notion of home, in conjunction with Gilroy's writing, asserting the need for new imaginative and creative forms of interconnection and identification. Along with Rushdie, he believes that it is the task of the modern writer to ‘create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands’ (Rushdie, 1991: 10). In his writing, the diasporic and traumatic histories of blacks and Jews form the basis of, and potential for, productive links and dialogue between the two cultures. This dialogue can, in turn, challenge the isolation imposed on both individuals and cultures by traumatic experience. As Jacqueline Rose observes, however, the postmodern celebration of homelessness - of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time -holds its own political dangers. This vision of free-wheeling identity offers the promise that the anxiety of belonging can be redeemed in the present by dispersal. However, for Rose, selfhood and nationhood cannot be so easily willed away. Rose calls into question the validity of a diaspora politics such as Phillips advances, especially when it is associated with Israel: ‘But the status of a diaspora intellectual cannot be invoked as a solution when, for the nation in question, the diaspora is the source of the problem, the place where historically it begins’ (1996:14). In seeking to move beyond the bounded politics of nationalism, we risk losing sight of the historic traumas that we unwittingly carry within us, and that transmit and repeat themselves across time.
In The Nature of Blood, Phillips intertwines the histories of Eva and Stern, of Othello and the Jews of Portobuffole, in order to represent (p.112) the long and bloody history of European racism. Tracing a complex journey through space and time, Phillips confronts his readers with a seemingly unending series of atrocities, in which the violence of the past cannot be laid to rest but inexorably re-emerges in the present. The narratives that Phillips relates are carefully intercut in order to draw out telling analogies. Othello leaves his new wife in order to receive his latest ‘Orders from the doge and his senators’ (149). Phillips cuts to the narrative of the Jews of Portobuffole: by order of the doge and his senators, the trial that will convict the Jews has just begun. In this intersection, Othello's blindness to the racism of the Venetians is both highlighted and confirmed. In a particularly powerful conjunction, Eva, climbing out of the cattle car at the death camp, is enveloped in the suffocating smell of burning and the air is full of smoke and ash. The smell comes not just from the camp chimneys but from St Mark's Square in Venice, where the Jews of Portobuffole are being burned alive: ‘[The executioner] threw the ash into the air and it dispersed immediately’ (156). The two historical instances of anti-Semitism interconnect and Phillips reinforces the point through repetition. He closes the encyclopaedic definition of the workings of the gas chambers by echoing the concluding words of the account of the burning of the Jews in Venice: ‘The ash is white and is easily scattered’ (178). In suggesting connections and analogies between different historical instances of trauma, Phillips employs a risky literary strategy. Revathi Krishnaswamy has suggested that one effect of the critical representation of migrancy on which Phillips draws has been a corresponding evacuation of history: ‘politically charged words like “diaspora” and “exile” are being emptied of their histories of pain and suffering and are being deployed promiscuously to designate a wide array of cross-cultural phenomena’ (1995: 128). There is an element of such promiscuity in Phillips's writing, which deliberately and provocatively spans a wide, cross-cultural range of traumatic experience. Phillips's work is also based in extensive historical research, however, and extends from this basis to explore the cross-cultural implications and potentialities of the material.
The repetition of imagery, in particular the motif of blood, forms a central technique in the novel through which Phillips establishes the interconnectedness of the histories he narrates. Blood provides the novel's title and saturates the narrative. Phillips's constant evocation of the imagery of blood cumulatively represents the violent history of European racism. The continent itself is personified as a cannibal which devours the flesh of the Jews and ‘spits the chewed bones’ out (p.113) onto the island of Cyprus (12). Beyond this, Phillips develops the metaphor of blood into a complex and multi-faceted image, so that it becomes a substance which both unites and separates people. Ledent observes of the motif of blood in the novel:
On the one hand, it is the substance of life that links all human beings together, whatever their race, and hence symbolises the common fund of humanity so forcefully denied by all racist ideologies, not least the Nazis' […]. On the other hand, blood […] symbolises the barrier between the different human groups, whether families or races, thus standing for their irremediable estrangement and the violence this eventually engenders, while simultaneously representing the cement that brings groups of people together, since, as the saying goes, ‘blood is thicker than water’. (2002: 139)
Phillips also observes the importance of a newspaper article that he encountered while he was completing the work:
According to the paper, it appeared that in recent years black Jews in Israel had been donating blood in the hope that it might be used to save lives. However, the Israeli government, fearful of ‘diseases’ that might be contained in this blood, had instructed the medical teams to dump the ‘black’ blood. The secret practice had now been exposed, and the black Jews were rioting and demanding that this racist practice now be stopped. I could barely believe what I was reading. (1998: 4)
This story relates most obviously to Malka and the prejudice to which she and her family are subject in Israel. However, it also suggests a broader form of racism which interconnects blacks and Jews and which is ‘based solely upon visibility and difference’ (1998: 7).
In The Nature of Blood, blood defines and demarcates the differences between people: the Venetians marry in order ‘to keep the bloodlines pure’ (112), but so also do the Jews. Phillips symbolises the Jewish fear of miscegenation through their attitude towards blood itself: ‘nothing is more impure than blood - not just from animals, from whom the Jews drain the blood after slaughter, but even from their own women’ (149–50). Blood also forms the basis of the Christian allegations against the Jews of Portobuffole. Othello is concerned with his own bloodline and the purity of his descent: ‘I […] was born of royal blood, and possessed a lineage of such quality that not even slavery could stain its purity’ (159). Blood provides the ingredient which binds societies together, whether Venetian, Jewish or African, but it is also the basis of a damaging and threatening tribalism which Phillips defines as the most pressing issue in Europe today: ‘the rise of nationalistic fervour, which leads people to close (p.114) ranks into groups - or tribes - has become the most urgent and seemingly intractable of the many difficulties that now face modern Europe’ (1987: xi). Against such separatism, Phillips asserts the value of cultural hybridity and his own ‘doggedly “impure”’ blood (2002: 130). The blood flowing through his veins is Caribbean, ‘an impure mixture that suggests transcendence and connectivity’ (2002: 131).
Blood also represents the violence and brutality that are the endpoints of tribalism and racism. The fire which burns the Jews of Portobuffole ‘consume[s] flesh and blood’ (155), while the station platform at the death camp comprises an unending ‘river of blood’ (162). The humiliation of the Jews in the camps is powerfully symbolised in the ripping off of the women's sanitary belts, so that there is ‘[b]lood everywhere’ (164). Eva is haunted by the blood of the camps and she wonders, as she endures the death march: ‘How will they cleanse the earth after this?’ (186) .9 After the war, she is unable to cleanse her own thoughts of blood and she is haunted by the young woman with a mouth ‘red like blood’ (197). Longing for the ‘bloodless place’ (169) of death and oblivion, Eva commits suicide by slitting her wrists, draining her own body of blood as if in a cleansing ritual. Phillips emphasises through repetition that there was a ‘lot of blood’ (188) when Eva's body was found. The novel offers a vision of European history which comprises an unending and voracious bloodletting. While the Jewish Holocaust forms the central focus, Eva's story is nevertheless firmly situated in the context of a long and ugly history of European racism.
Phillips's extended reflection on the nature of blood also works in intertextual dialogue with OtheUo and The Merchant of Venice. In Othello, Brabanzio asserts the importance of blood ties and a pure bloodline, as he accuses Desdemona of ‘treason of the blood’ (I, i 171). Blood is highly susceptible to influence: Othello is accused of persuading Desdemona to marry him ‘with some mixtures powerful o'er the blood’ (I, iii, 104), while for lago, love is merely ‘a lust of the blood’ (I, iii, 333) and his suggestions to Othello work like poison ‘upon the blood’ (III, iii, 332). Phillips highlights Shakespeare's emphasis on the simultaneous attraction and danger of blood ties and the exclusions in which they can result. He omits Othello's ‘most bloody’ (IV, i, 90) vengeance on Desdemona, which leaves their bed stained with ‘lust's blood’ (V, i, 36). This allows him to concentrate on the blood ties which underpin Venetian society and undermine Othello's position and confidence. In The Merchant of Venice, it is Shylock who invokes the power of blood relation as he accuses his daughter: (p.115) ‘My own flesh and blood to rebel!’ (III, i, 32). He is quickly refuted by Salerio, however, who denies the bond of the bloodline, stating that there is ‘more [difference] between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish’ (III, i, 36–7). For Shylock, blood is also the sign of a common humanity which transcends ethnic and racial divisions, evident in his plea: ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’ (Ill, i, 60). Phillips's extended, complex and multi-faceted imagery of blood is prefigured in Shakespeare, and Phillips both draws on him and writes in intertextual dialogue with him.
The European Tribe forms a companion text to The Nature of Blood and the two works can productively be read in intertextual relation. Both books provide powerful testimony to Phillips's conviction that Europe is inherently racist. The European Tribe comprises a modern Grand Tour in which Phillips travels through Europe as an outsider, viewing the European sensibility with an anthropological gaze. Phillips criticises European insularity and solipsism: ‘Europe's absence of self-awareness seems to me directly related to a lack of a cogent sense of history. […] It is a false history, an unquestioning and totally selfish one, in which whites civilize and discover’ (1987: 121). The Nature of Blood clearly arises out of Phillips's desire to provide a ‘cogent’ history of Europe. He contests the selfishness of Europe by giving voice to those who, like himself, are an integral part of European history but are nevertheless regarded as outsiders. His intertextuality does not seek to erase or dismantle the founding narratives of European literature, but rather adds to them by including aspects which those in the West have often preferred to omit or forget.
Phillips presents his readers with the voices of those who are the victims of traumatic violence. He documents the seemingly endless cycle of violence and bloodshed perpetrated under various forms and permutations of European tribalism. The voices bear witness to their own experiences, but it is up to the reader to discern the points of connection and interpenetration between the stories, and to piece together the history of the European tribe which underpins and draws together the various narrative strands. Phillips's polyphonic text is not content to narrate the story of an individual in relation to the events of his or her own past, but gestures beyond this to the way in which individual trauma is always tied up with the trauma of another. Each of the narrators' experiences are profoundly connected to and inextricable from the stories of the other speakers. The question that Phillips leaves unresolved, and that haunts the reader at (p.116) the close of the narrative, is whether the river of blood which flows from the very heart of Europe can be stopped and there can be an end to the repetition-compulsion of European racism and violence. Phillips suggests that it is precisely that which is not fully known in the first instance which returns to haunt us later on. In articulating the stories of the violent events, but also in dramatising through inter-textuality the ways in which this violence has not yet been fully known or acknowledged as part of European history and culture, Phillips gestures towards a new way of reading and listening which, Caruth suggests, trauma ‘profoundly and imperatively demand [s]’ (1996a: 9).