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Dr Ivan Stacy
Beijing Normal University
Literature and Complicity: Failures of Witnessing in Postwar Fiction

In this talk, I will explore the relationship between literature and complicity in postwar fiction. I will begin by defining complicity, and by describing the various forms that it can take. I will then outline what I see as the general relationship between narrative and complicity, and the specific relationship between literary fiction and complicity: I suggest that narrative can be complicit with wrongdoing when it enacts or impels individuals into positions of culpable ignorance and connivance (i.e. looking the other way), and that literary fiction tends to draw attention and to critique such forms of complicity by thematising and embodying them within a reflexive textual framework.
In the second part of the talk, I will examine three postwar writers form whom complicity is a central concern. Albert Camus’ The Plague and The Fall represent a shift from the notion of testimony as a form of resistance to a more troubled examination of failures of witnessing. The protagonists of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels tend to obfuscate and elide the details of their own complicity with wrongdoing, but both The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans invite us to read past these narrative failings to identify the narrators’ culpability. Finally, Margaret Atwood’s dystopias in The Handmaid’s Tale and The MaddAddam trilogy represent situations in which non-complicity is simply not an option. For this reason, she explores forms of compromise as a means of negotiating non-deal circumstances in which complicity with wrongdoing is unavoidable.


Ivan Stacy is associate professor in the School of Foreign Languages and Literature at Beijing Normal University. The main focus of his research is complicity in postwar fiction, and he is also interested in the carnivalesque. He has published articles on these themes in the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, W. G. Sebald and China Miéville, and on the American television series The Wire. He co-edited (with Arin Keeble) The Wire and America’s Dark Corners, and he is currently working on a monograph provisionally titled Literature and Complicity which is scheduled for publication with Lexington in 2020. He has taught in China, Thailand, the UK, Bhutan, Libya, and South Korea.