(Masterpieces of American Literature)

This story is to be found in Mukherjee’s first collection of short fiction, titled Darkness (1985). Like most of its companion stories in this collection, it records, analyzes, and dramatizes the tribulations of South Asian immigrants in North America. These Darkness stories are painful, often violent, and either tragic or ironic; their collective title seems to be an ironic inversion of the way in which the West thinks of itself as a locus of freedom, opportunity, and enlightenment in contrast to benighted developing countries. The irony is especially mordant when one hears in Mukherjee’s title echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), condemning nineteenth century European colonialism, and V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness (1964), an Asian-denigrating travelogue about India. For Mukherjee, it appears that darkness has overtaken North America, supposedly the leading light of the Western world.

It is racism, a darkness of the mind toward the darkness of another’s skin, that most taints North American life. The racism of Canada, especially, receives the brunt of Mukherjee’s resentment in “The World According to Hsü.” Indeed, in her introduction to these stories, Mukherjee says that during her fourteen-year sojourn in Canada, white Canadians commonly assumed that she was a prostitute, a shoplifter, or a domestic, and that Canadian society routinely made crippling assumptions about the imagined disabilities of immigrants of color.

In “The World According to Hsü,” Ratna Clayton, a Eurasian woman of Indian descent, and her husband, Graeme Clayton, a white Canadian professor, are vacationing on an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the African coast. The couple is trying to decide whether to move their home from French Montreal to Anglo...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

The World According to Hsü Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

From Montreal, the Claytons arrive in the wintry June of a recently independent island-nation—perhaps the Malagasy Republic but unnamed and thus serving as a symbol for postcolonial states where coups come with “seasonal regularity”—for what they hope will be a peaceful vacation. They are greeted by an unexpected, unreported revolution in progress; the vaguely leftist government downplays the insurgent “melancholy students and ungenerous bureaucrats” of the neocolonial movement, but the Claytons do not panic, presuming to remain aloof from the rioting, looting, and killing. Beneath their romantic illusions of an escape to an “old-fashioned” paradisiacal retreat, both of them harbor undisclosed motives in taking the trip. Graeme Clayton, while ostensibly wishing to view the Southern Cross, a constellation not visible in Canada, actually hopes to persuade his wife to move to Toronto so that he can accept the chair of the Personality Growth Department, an offer that he has already accepted. Ratna Clayton plans, instead of lolling on the beach, “to take stock” of her previously “manageably capricious” life before the six-month debate over the move.

The narrator, who reflects Ratna’s point of view, shows a chaotic world, riddled with divisions of race, religion, class, nationality, and language in seemingly perpetual conflict. Considering Graeme’s tendency to lecture at every opportunity, Ratna imagines his clinical account once they return to Montreal; she anticipates that Graeme’s colleague, Freddie McLaren, will relate the coup to Catholic-Protestant fighting in Belfast, to religious and political factional strife in Beirut, and to the French separatist movement in Quebec. She recalls their travel agent Camille Lioon’s warning against a stop in Saudi Arabia, because of Hindu-Muslim antipathies, and Lioon’s accusation that the Saudis are insensitive, even though he is “no less an Arab than they.” Ratna contemplates her fear of “Toronto racists,” for whom she believes she is “not Canadian, not even Indian” but, in the derogatory “imported idiom of London, a Paki.” With a Czech mother, she remembers that even her father’s Indian family shunned her “as a ’white rat’” when she was “a pale, scrawny blonde” as a child: The “European strain had appeared and disappeared.”

Bearing the anguish of expatriation, Ratna arrives at an intended “refuge” that becomes a “prison,” mirroring her own inner turmoil. That turmoil is exacerbated by Graeme’s need for “some definitive order.” Ironically, as “an authority on a whole rainbow of dysfunctions” and anticipating his direction of studies in personality growth, Graeme maintains a...

(The entire section is 1111 words.)