May 2013

Sessily Watt


The Politics of Exile by Elizabeth Daphinee

The Politics of Exile begins as a confessional. "I built my career on the life of a man called Stojan Sokolović," the narrator writes. "And I would like to explain myself to him." The narrator, who goes unnamed, is a professor of international politics and ethics, with a research focus on the Bosnian War. Before she meets Stojan, her career is on the rise, including a completed manuscript that has been accepted for publication. But her apparent career success is encased in a faltering life: she is caught up in a loneliness that is exacerbated by the rhythms of the university, in which the population disappears at the beginning of summer and reappears in the fall, reconstituted, familiar but unknown. When she requests a Serbo-Croatian translator to double-check a few sections in her manuscript, Stojan enters her routine loneliness. He refuses to stick to any of her categories -- student, translator, or research subject -- and begins to painfully break her loneliness apart.

If this were a different kind of book, no one would be surprised if the narrator and Stojan fell in love. Nor would they be surprised if he entered her life as the wise Other, teaching her how to appreciate her comfortable life through a comparison to the horrible things he has seen and done. But this isn't either of those books. Elizabeth Dauphinee, like her narrator, is a professor of international politics and the focus of her text is not on the loneliness of the researcher, but about the categories and explanations the narrator has created for the experiences of war in order to make war understandable. Though the narrative creates a connection between her loneliness and those categories, the focus of the text is on how those categories hide more than they reveal and how they impact the people she believes she is studying.

Dauphinee accomplishes this in part by shifting from the narrator's perspective to third-person retellings of the war experiences of Stojan, his brother Luka, Luka's girlfriend Jelena, and another man, Milan, who enters the others' lives later in the war. Their story begins with war talk on the television and an argument between the two brothers as to whether the war is real. "This is Europe," says Luka, arguing that the world will not allow war to break out in Bosnia. But then Stojan is called up as a soldier and their father sends Luka to Belgrade, to escape the war, though he does not stay safe for long. The false certainties and increasing doubts from before the war only increase and grow volatile as they mix with guilt and vengeance, undermining at every step the careful categories and academic theories of Dauphinee's narrator, who writes about the ethics of that same war years later in a different country.

As Naeem Inayatullah observes in the foreword to The Politics of Exile, Dauphinee's first book covered similar ground, but whereas The Ethics of Researching War: Looking for Bosnia was a work of theory, engaging with the gaps that open between research and lived experience within the traditional modes of academic scholarship, The Politics of Exile enacts those gaps. Through narrative, Dauphinee moves beyond the naming and categorizing that cripples the narrator's ability to relate others. In this way, The Politics of Exile belongs among the many self-referential texts that have multiplied in the modern and postmodern eras. The narrator clearly represents Dauphinee, though it is never directly stated that they are one and the same, and the text is both her method for describing the problems of her research and her attempt to move beyond those problems.

At first, this self-awareness and self-consciousness feels too familiar, evoking a long history of tired narratives about a writer's loneliness, lovelessness, or ennui. This familiarity is undercut, however, as the stories from the Bosnian War take up more and more space in the text, decentralizing the narrator until she becomes a curator or gathering point rather than a driving force. She is one of many characters, connected through their relationships to the Bosnian War and their resulting struggles with questions of absolution and justice. The questions of how we research and explain the ethics of war, which are important to the narrator, become a subset of the larger questions about how we -- all of us -- deal with war and, in particular, with war crimes. What happens after the crimes have been committed and judgment has passed? What happens when the aftereffects of war become a part of our daily routines?

There are no easy answers. The Politics of Exile explores those experiences that can neither be explained away nor remain hidden. They are like the silent men and women who visit one of the Serbian churches in the narrator's unnamed city. They cannot ask for forgiveness, cannot weep, can do nothing except be what they are. All Dauphinee asks is that we see them.

The Politics of Exile by Elizabeth Dauphinee
ISBN: 978-0415640848
224 pages