Falling out over fiction

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How can you possibly lose a friend over the status of a work of literature? Here’s how. When I was a child, working in my junior school library, book classification was easy. There was fiction and there was non-fiction. One type had a red sticker and one a green. Looking back I can now see that reality is more complex than a simple binary state. Even a work of fiction is frequently set in a real time and place, and consequently will contain factual information. Could you write a Hundred Years’ War romance without revealing something of the world of Edward III or Henry V? Can you join Philip Marlowe walking down ‘mean streets’ without learning something of Los Angeles?

The authors of historical fiction, of whom English writer Hilary Mantel is such a noted exponent at present, cannot ethically alter known and historically agreed facts. But they are perfectly justified in using their creative imagination to interpret those facts and fill in lacunae. Creators of great historical literature like Mantel, Robert Graves and Alfred Duggan are all too credible I find. The great risk is that their imaginative visions can be more powerful than dreary reality. Who can now think of any interpretation of the Roman emperor Claudius except the Graves – Derek Jacobi version? Or Henry V without Shakespeare’s ‘once more unto the breach dear friends’? It is especially hard to break free from the same playwright’s contentious, but very powerful, portrayal of Richard III.

A non-fiction account, which I confess is what I personally prefer, should tell what is known, and what can be reasonably hypothesised, without further embellishment. This brings me to the nub of my problem. I know of two authors who have written accounts of life in Nazi death camps which purported to contain their own recollections, but which were subsequently shown to be fictitious. In one case I believe that the author admitted that he had been economical with the truth, the other seems to have genuinely believed the fantasy. If both books had been published as works of fiction there would have been no problem whatsoever, indeed the works would have had value in keeping the knowledge of those terrible events in the collective public mind. But the authors attempted to pass them off as personal experience. In the case of the Holocaust there is an especial danger. There are those people who try to deny that it ever was a genuine historical event. Writing ostensibly factual works on this topic which are later effectively revealed to be fictional potentially provides ammunition for ‘deniers’ who wish to promote the extraordinary idea that the death camps and the Holocaust were wholly fictitious.

There are slightly less serious examples of the fact-fiction dichotomy. I first became aware of the problem with an Australian novella, which later became a noted film, called Picnic at Hanging Rock. A group of schoolgirls inexplicably disappear during an outing. The author allows the reader to believe that the work is based on true events and if this were indeed the case the episode would rank as on of the world’s most puzzling unsolved mysteries. But it is invented and, as an invention, it is simply a well-told mystery story for which the author evidently couldn’t contrive a satisfactory ending.

In the 1950s one T.Lobsang Rampa claimed to be a Tibetan lama. His book The Third Eye and its successors sold millions of copies. There is not much doubt that the author was born Cyril Hoskin in glorious Devon and he had never even visited Tibet, at least outside the astral plane. I have read several of his books and none have provided me with any deep spiritual insights. I have met people who have had a different experience, although none recently as it happens. Was this all simply a confidence trick on the book-buying public or did young Cyril find everyday reality impossibly pedestrian and so genuinely believed in what he wrote? The truth, as they say, is out there.

About a decade later Carlos Castaneda, a Peruvian-American anthropologist, also sold millions of books, this time on the subject of central American shamanism. Were his works fiction? He said not. Do they contain valuable insights into philosophy and religious practice? Well perhaps I’m not the best person to judge. I think it is true that most academics now say his accounts were invented but, when I last checked, Carlos still had his faithful supporters. Litigation over his will and the unexplained death and disappearance of some of his closest disciples has shed a lurid light on the end of his life. Could his books be of value even if they were fictional? Not to me personally, that is obvious. Some supporters have claimed that they were an extremely clever critique on contemporary anthropological practice. But this is a little like a painter, who has become rich by faking Rembrandts, claiming his activities were a clever and highly principled attack on the immoral world of art dealers. Implausible, just possibly true, but mighty bad luck for those who bought the Rembrandts.

In our discussion my friend strongly believed that concealed works of ‘faction’ might still provide insights of great value; I passionately maintained that a worthwhile book that proposes to tell the truth cannot start with a thumping great lie on the dust-cover. High words ensued. So we cannot agree about this, or much else, and are not likely to be talking again any time soon. Are we both right to see this as an important issue? Or do we provide living examples of people who can grow older without ever growing up? My perception is that I see things clearly and have little appetite for compromise, but perhaps I am really just a grumpy pensioner.

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