11 December 2006

How much of an autobiography should we believe?

Told in the first person, an autobiography is supposed to be a testimonial of the person writing the autobiography. The first-person voice makes the storytelling more compelling, more believable, more real. The autobiographer, as the storyteller, sucks us, the reader, into the story, making us believe that the reality of the autobiographer is the real world. Almost as if forcing us to recognise and accept the autobiographer’s view of the world as our own reality.

This technique is used by fiction writers too. As readers of fiction, we often escape into the fiction-writer’s world, seamlessly, believing the storytelling, the setting, the characters, etc. to be true… at least, for that moment. It’s like experiencing a reverie. However, we come out of this reverie, if not immediately upon closing the book, at least sometime soon afterward. We realise this is not the real world, but a fictional tale told by a person providing us a few hours’, or a few days’, entertainment.

Of course, we go through our emotions, feeling happy or sad or angry or despair, in agreement with, or in response to, the writer’s treatment of the story and the experiences of the characters in the story. Later, we applaud or challenge or criticise the fiction-writer’s work, reviewing his/her skills as a storyteller, either in absolute terms or in comparison with other works of fiction. But, all through the experience of reading and discussing the work, never do we forget that it is a work of fiction. Anything can happen here. Reality can take its own shape.

But, an autobiography must speak the truth. People, places, dates, events, sequence of events, conversations cannot change to make the storytelling more entertaining, more compelling. The autobiographer is bound by these elements. However, the autobiographer may play with the style of presenting these elements and these facts, and add to them his own inner experiences and emotions as flavours. This basically means, the autobiographer cannot make up or fictionalise the narrative according to his/her whims.

Autobiographers rarely ever write their narratives on the spot. They write later, remembering, introspecting, relying on their memories. This is a tricky affair as memories are known to fail. Of course, autobiographers consult various notes, journals and documents before actually constructing their stories, but can these documents be 100% reliable? The emotions experienced instantly, the nuances of the moment are likely to be missing.

Moreover, autobiographers may be, like all human beings are, prone to talking too much about themselves, exaggerating their life stories, self-justifying their actions, presenting their opinions as facts… turning their autobiographies into works of fiction. If the only reliable source of facts in an autobiography is the autobiographer himself/herself, how can the reader, not having first-hand knowledge, verify all the facts of an autobiography? If all this be true, how much of an autobiography should we really believe?

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