Memories of Empire: The Empire Exhibition in Andrea Levy's "Small Island" and Hari Kunzru's "The Impressionist"
The Journal of Commonwealth Literature
Two novels from the early 2000s set key scenes at the Empire Exhibition in London in 1924: Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist (2002) and Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004). In both novels, the Exhibition is clearly intended to enshrine in the collective memory of British citizens a particular, museum-like vision of Britain’s history with its colonies. In part, the imperial propaganda generated by the exhibition is born out of England’s interwar anxiety about the looming breakup of its empire. It is ironic then that in both cases, the exhibits seem to evoke a very different reaction in the characters who encounter them: the presence of real people — specifically real Africans — undermines the tightly ordered fixity of the museum display. Instead it becomes another kind of memory site: messy and unpredictable, with the constant potential to expose the superficiality of colonial stereotypes and bear witness to more jagged and less flattering histories. Indeed, the same anxieties that create the need for stable memories of the past also lead to cracks in the structures of colonial domination, giving characters space to recreate their identities and their collective memories.
Graham Shane.September 2013.“Memories of Empire: The Empire Exhibition in Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 48.3. 441-52.