30 December 2007

For the sake of popularity

In school, I hated history. I had to memorise names of people and places and dates, which I never could, and ended up getting low marks in exams. I found history books boring, with the same old stuff written in every book year after year, and every book carrying the same old badly-printed black & white pictures. Those days, in India, good history books with colour photos were few and expensive. So, I dropped history as soon as I could and decided to take up science. Much later in life, and I don’t know how it happened, I began to take an interest in history, and even anthropology.

The fact about historians opening up to make their work more ‘fictional’ is an interesting happening. I’m not totally against this. In fact, remembering my history classes in school, I believe it’s a happy circumstance to be in. I feel this ‘opening up’ reaches out to more people and attracts them to a subject which is considered boring. And, I’m not one to complain about this. I remember my excitement when I read Jacob Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’ some 20 years ago. It was a wonderful presentation on the history of science; and, perhaps, that’s when my interest in history began.

Science has always adopted various routes in popularising difficult-to-understand subjects and new discoveries. Books (both non-fiction and sci-fi) and documentary films on, say, the theory of evolution, particle physics and nanotechnology are just a few good examples of this approach. Mind you, this doesn’t mean good hard work by historians and scientists should be discredited for being too factual and uninteresting – and, therefore, unpopular. Nor does it mean fiction should overrule historical and scientific facts for the sake of popularity.

29 December 2007

History is not 100% fiction

There seems to be a debate in historical circles surrounding the idea that history is fiction. Particularly those historians who are influenced by the deconstructionist movement believe that a historical narrative is not much different from fiction. That, at the end of the day, what historians do is put together whatever evidence there is and try to make sense of it in a narrative form. Which is exactly what good storytellers do.

That’s why, these days, we see some change in the way that history is presented to us. Whereas in the past, history books were seen as having undisputed authority over the past (and were written in an authoritative tone), nowadays, we see historians openly working through their prejudices and ideologies and presenting history in a narrative form which is (given a little licence here and there) as entertaining as a story.

Of course, some writers of fiction – and filmmakers too – try to take this idea farther. They believe fiction is a better vehicle than history because they can get into the time and into the period with more depth than historians can. Because they – i.e. writers and filmmakers – can use their imagination, empathy, skills and techniques (of the trade) to create a better picture of the events, people and their lifestyles of that period.

Do I agree with this? Yes, I do. But then, I don’t assume that this fiction is 100% history. Nor do I assume that history is 100% fiction.

I understand that writers and filmmakers – as well as historians, biologists, physicists or fiction authors – bring something of themselves and their beliefs into their work. I understand that filmmakers and writers of historical fiction use their creative licence to present to us a more colourful and entertaining version of history than what we may have found in our history books earlier. And that’s where it all stands.

28 December 2007

Isn’t history another story?

The criticisms showered by historians on historical films (see my previous posts) is an interesting subject. Mostly, criticisms are directed at inaccuracies in representation of facts, as well as the interpretations and enhancements that film directors make liberal use of ‘as technique’ to tell their stories. Hence, I find Oliver Stone’s allusion (about himself as a historical filmmaker) to a dramatist along the lines of William Shakespeare a fascinating analogy.

William Shakespeare had taken ample liberties in writing his historical plays (Richard III, Henry V, etc.) and his tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.) – changing facts, dramatising history and historical characters (even inventing a few) to make his plays more attractive to his audience. Nobody finds anything wrong in this, of course. After all, this is literature; this is fiction. And, we all like a good story, well told.

But, isn’t history fiction too? Isn’t history a narrative constructed by men and women to serve a particular academic/cultural/social purpose and, therefore, holding much in common with literature of the fictive kind?

Yes, it is true that what historians construct are based on material evidence from the past (archival sources, archeological pieces found at digs, etc.). But they also have to construct a narrative out of these diverse sources. And, while they try to be objective like scientists, these narratives are inevitably biased by their ideas, ideologies, opinions, and their desires to tell a good story.

In that case, are historians really all that different from authors and filmmakers who do historical research in order to construct a good era-based fiction? And present history to us as another story?

17 December 2007

Contesting history

Commercial filmmakers of history – such as David Lean, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Mel Gibson, among others – have always attracted controversy and criticism. They have been accused of distorting historical records, reconfiguring history to mean something else altogether. As a film viewer, this criticism has always bothered me.

As a film viewer, I know commercial filmmakers of history are not historians. They have never claimed to be so. I look to historical films for knowledge and inspiration, as much as for entertainment. Anybody who offers an interpretation of the past, breaking down myths, is welcome by me… so long as the depiction is not a total fantasy.

I had read somewhere that Oliver Stone views himself as a historical dramatist in the tradition of William Shakespeare and the Greeks. If I’ve understood it right, Stone says, like Shakespeare’s history plays like ‘Richard III’ and ‘Henry V’, his historical films like ‘JFK’ and ‘Platoon’ are a mix of fact and fiction.

In his films, Oliver Stone attempts to reveal larger truths by challenging the mainstream, i.e. generally-accepted, views of history. His films offer a meaning of the past, contesting traditional/official narratives of historians, critiquing dominant ideologies, in an effort to unravel some of the darker, questionable aspects of our past.

After all, history is not only about kings, queens, presidents, soldiers/warriors, wars, conspiracies and collapse of empires. History is also about ideology, corruption, abuse of power, breakdown of order, freedom, loss, uncertainty, fear, anxiety, confusion, despair, exhaustion, racism, brutality and regard/disregard for humanity.

We, as film viewers (and that includes historians), are often uncomfortable with some of the narratives and conclusions that filmmakers like Stone, Scott and Gibson advocate. They make us think not only about our past, but also about who we are. I remember being deeply moved by ‘No Man’s Land’, a film by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, which questioned the meaninglessness of war. The film left me somewhat helpless.

Films like ‘No Man’s Land’, Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and Stone’s ‘Platoon’ not only represent history, they also influence our perception of life and question our moral standing.

14 December 2007

Are film directors dishonest?

“The only reason to make a historical film is because it illuminates the present.”
– Ken Loach, British filmmaker

David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’; Ken Loach’s ‘Hidden Agenda’; Steven Spielberg’s ‘Amistad’; Shekhar Kapoor’s ‘Elizabeth’; Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’; Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’… these are a few among many films which have been hounded and criticised by historians for their inaccurate depiction of historical facts.

Why is there so much bad blood over inaccuracies in films that depict historic periods? Do historians feel that film directors are inept, or simply dishonest, in making historical films? How accurate should a historical film be?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do have a question of my own: Should film directors compromise a good story in order to depict historical facts accurately?

My teenage niece (who was looking on as I was writing this blog post) tells me that a good story, any day, is better than rigidly sticking to the facts. She tells me that film directors usually add a twist of their own to make a good film with a good story more appealing to the viewers.

How big a twist should directors add to their films? I guess, to the extent the film does not compromise its entertainment value. After all, we watch films for entertainment, not for lessons in history. There’s no point in making a historically accurate film if the film becomes unwatchable.

More so because film is art. And art is more liberal in its interpretation and presentation.

However, once again, the issue of ‘fact or fiction’ raises its ugly head: Should film directors be allowed to change real (historical) events, or real characters for that matter, in the name of art? And, moreover, should such decisions be justified by them – or by film viewers like us?

12 December 2007

Taking liberties

I am inspired by a comment on my blog. [Thanks Madhuri] The comment stated: “Fiction set against the backdrop of a history often gives a much better perspective of that history than a historical discourse/report.”

I agree. That’s the wonderful thing about fiction, particularly historical fiction. Whether a book or a film, the filling in of the details by the author/filmmaker adds colour and makes everything more interesting. Normally, responsible authors and filmmakers stick close to what is known and fill in the details between documented facts. However, on many occasions, authors and filmmakers present an alternative which disagree – or, is in conflict – with documented facts.

These interpretations of facts, these liberties that authors and filmmakers often take, can confuse readers and audiences. Although there is freedom of speech (in most countries in the world) that allows this, conservative schools of thought say that inaccurate representations of facts in the guise of fiction can be misunderstood by people. That fiction can often become fact. That, historical inaccuracies, particularly when well presented, can often change what we believe to be the truth.

A case in point is Oliver Stone’s 1991 Hollywood film ‘JFK’ about the controversy behind US President John F Kennedy’s assassination. Director Oliver Stone had used a cinematic technique in his film ‘JFK’, mixing actual B&W newsreel footage with his personal version of the mystery behind the Kennedy assassination by depicting these (i.e. the make-believe) portions in colour. On seeing the film, many viewers actually believed Stone’s version to be the real thing.

Thus, Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ created a huge controversy, and came under attack from the media as well as historians. As people lined up to see ‘JFK’ (which did rather well in the box office and later won two Academy Awards), the US media and several historians went overboard criticising the historical inaccuracies in Stone’s film. They all said that, in ‘JFK’, Oliver Stone has tricked his audience.

Criticism aimed at Stone derided him for taking liberties in interpreting historical facts; using pseudo-documentary footage to represent fiction as fact; using the fictional character ‘X’ (a colonel in the US Air Force played by actor Donald Sutherland) to explain/justify Stone’s myth of a conspiracy; and, more importantly, implying a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination involving President Lyndon B Johnson and other senior US government officials.

Of course, Stone defended himself. In an interview with Mark C Carnes in ‘Cineaste’ (Fall 1996) Stone says: “…we as dramatists are undertaking a deconstruction of history, questioning some of the given realities. What you call ‘sneaky’ is, to me, an ambivalent and shifting style that makes people aware they are watching a movie and that reality itself is in question. JFK was the beginning of a new era for me in terms of filmmaking because it’s not just about a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy. It’s also about the way we look at our recent history.”

And, I think, therein lies the truth (and the beauty) that authors and filmmakers pursue in their craft.

[Citation: ‘Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (interview with film director Oliver Stone)’, by Mark C Carnes, Cineaste v22 n4 (Fall 1996)]

11 December 2007

Artful writing

Journalists report facts. They don’t cook up stories from their imagination. Cooking up stories is a novelist’s prerogative. Journalists state facts in impersonal tones, leaving out all emotion from their writing. They don’t personalise events as they happen, or happened. They never use ‘I’ in their narratives. That creative licence belongs to the novelist.

The journalist who turns to write novels requires a reversal of role – a change in discipline, a switching of personalities. The new path can be treacherous for those who are reluctant to leave their former profession behind. For, a journalist’s world is that of reality, while a novelist’s is that of fiction.

However, going by the number of journalists who have become novelists – some even managing to maintain both professions simultaneously – perhaps, the transformation isn’t difficult for the talented. Ernest Hemingway is a wonderful example of this model. Although Hemingway was in Spain to report on the Civil War (which he did, of course; and even joined forces with the militia against the fascists), he is better remembered by us for his novel ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, a fictional narrative from his experiences there.

However, Hemingway had kept his journalism and his fiction separate – unlike Javier Cercas, author of ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ (please read my previous post), who seems to artfully mix the two. In his book, Cercas, also a journalist- novelist like Hemingway, narrates a particular event from the Spanish Civil War and its investigation 60-odd years later by a journalist-novelist. In fact, in the book, the journalist-novelist character is also called ‘Javier Cercas’.

This writer’s trick/technique can be a little confusing (I remember novelist Paul Auster had used ‘Paul Auster’ as a character in his novel ‘City of Glass’ some 20 years ago which could have been Paul Auster himself), but what amazes me about Cercas is his skill in weaving in and out of fact and fiction with the greatest ease, using the ‘I’ as a sort of self-reflexive technique to narrate the story. So, in ‘Soldiers of Salamis’, we (the readers) often find it difficult to distinguish the reality from the fiction.

Is this artful writing or just a writer’s trick to make the fiction seem real? Perhaps, it’s a bit of both. In an interview with Richard Lea in Guardian Unlimited some six months ago, Cercas explains himself about his writing style (and I quote from that article, ‘Really intense tales’):

His self-reflexive technique, he explains, came out of a series of experimental columns for the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, which continues to this day. “I began to write some weird stuff in El Pais, using the ‘I’,” he says, “and then I became aware that this ‘I’ was fictional, even in a newspaper. They were experimental, crazy columns, and I began to write in a different way, that some people describe as ‘self-fiction’.”

So the books aren’t true tales? “Of course not,” he smiles. “These narrators in the books are not myself, even though in the case of Soldiers of Salamis the name is my name.” According to Cercas, the first person voice is the natural starting point for fiction. To reach the third person was a “conquest” for him, but having achieved that stage of detachment he realised that the first person offers the writer many possibilities.

“The idea of putting oneself in the novel, more or less explicitly, is not new,” he observes. “There’s a whole bunch of writers that use this kind of ‘I’.” He mentions Cervantes, Borges, Roth.


Javier Cercas’ interview with Richard Lea is an amazing read by itself – and I recommend reading it in full. Here’s the link.

[Citation: ‘Really intense tales’, Richard Lea, Guardian Unlimited, 15 June 2007]

09 December 2007

A mix of the real and the imagined

I’m ashamed to say that, apart from an abridged version of Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’, poems and plays of Federico Garcia Lorca (during college), and (much later) some works of Camilo Jose Cela and Manuel Rivas, I’ve taken little interest in Spanish literature. Here, by ‘Spanish literature’ I mean literature from Spain, with European flavour, which excludes (Spanish) literature from Latin America.

Of course, I’ve read Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Graham Greene recounting their experiences in Spain, particularly about the Spanish Civil War and General Franco’s Spain. But, besides these tales, and some of Greene’s post-Franco observations, my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and post-Civil War Spain is next to zero. Hence, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Javier Cercas’ 2001 novel ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ and read it.

I say ‘trepidation’ because, thanks to Hemingway, Orwell and Greene, I’ve had an Anglo-American observer’s point of view of Spain and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). I did not know what to expect from a Spanish writer giving a Spanish insider’s ‘true tale’ view of what, historically, I knew nothing (and still know very little) of. The book ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ mentions many real-life people – in fact, it is based on a historical figure from that period – and was a little confusing for a neophyte like me.

Fortunately, the book (I have a Bloomsbury 2004 paperback edition) had two important sections at the back which helped. First, (Anne McLean’s) Translator’s Afterword, which gave a short political history of Spain during the Civil War. And second, Notes, which was a glossary of important people and terms from that period. These two sections are worth reading and consulting from time to time, and help tremendously in understanding the context of the tale.

The reason I categorise ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ as a ‘book’ and not a novel is because Cercas’ tale is not entirely fictional. It has such a clever mix of the real and the imagined that, at times, it seems like a true account of what may have happened during the Spanish Civil War (the past) and what Cercas himself may have gone through during his research for the book (the present context). Alas, some of all this is fabricated by the author and is, therefore, fiction. Cercas, apparently, labels it as a ‘true tale’.

‘Soldiers of Salamis’ is an account of Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a real-life character in Spain’s history. Sanchez Mazas was a fascist who played a lead role in the Falangist Movement and, later, became a minister in General Franco’s government. The story here is about Sanchez Mazas’ capture by the Republican Army during the Civil War, his failed execution by a firing squad, his miraculous escape when a Republican militiaman finds him and lets him live, his hiding in the forest under the protection of ‘forest friends’, his rescue when Franco’s army drives away the Republicans, his memory of this entire episode during his ministry in Franco’s government, and his compassion thereafter.

This tale forms the centre – the middle, really – of the book and is flanked by two important sections. The first section of the book is the story of a journalist/author, also named Cercas, who researches and writes this tale. The last section of the book is about this journalist’s pursuit of and meeting with an aged, but colourful, character called Miralles, who may have been the Republican militiaman who had spared Rafael Sanchez Mazas’ life and let him escape (after the firing squad fracas) during the Spanish Civil War… thereby changing Spain’s history of forever.

But ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ is much more than this. The book raises several questions on war, history, the recording of history, heroes and heroism, courage, loyalty, integrity and human compassion. But most of all, it is a discussion on truth, the quest for the truth, and how we remember our past. It is a discussion on how personal narratives in history, if left unchallenged or unverified, can be (mis)taken as the truth.

In a review of this book in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin mentions that Javier Cercas had described ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ not as a novel but as a ‘true tale’, ‘cut from the cloth of reality, concocted out of true events and characters’. Perhaps, ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ is exactly that. For those who enjoy historical fiction, this is a perfect story.

[Citation: ‘Boyd Tonkin salutes a commanding novel of war’s myths and memories’, The Independent on Sunday, 14 June 2003]

08 December 2007

Interweaving fact with fiction

History, particularly personal history, is a great source of information for writers of fiction. Many writers, like Milan Kundera about whom I’ve been blogging recently, base their stories upon their own experiences, using a great deal of material, sometimes verbatim, from their own lives.

They interweave fact with fiction, creating make-believe worlds which appear to us truer than real life. In the hands of a skilful writer, fact, along with a dose of the writer’s imagination becomes fiction. Yet, to us, this fiction appears as fact. The reality of the story is what we believe in.

On this subject, I recently read an old review of one of Asian-American author Amy Tan’s books, ‘The Opposite of Fate’. The review, by Clea Simon, in the San Francisco Chronicle from 7 December 2003, describes how this make-believe world of the author can appear to her/his readers.

“Amy Tan has built a career exploring mother-daughter relationships, particularly the tensions between a Chinese immigrant and her American-born children. Because Tan is Asian American and has continued to revisit these themes in her fiction, her fans have made the easy assumption that she writes from experience. These fans, she notes in her new collection of essays, ‘The Opposite of Fate’, often take for granted that she has lifted fiction directly out of fact, going so far as to congratulate her on her chess mastery (she doesn’t play chess) or asking after the children that her apparently fictional stand-ins enjoy (and she doesn’t have children).”

Of course, the writer of fiction views the process differently (and I quote again from the article): “But while the author does acknowledge that art grows from life, it is how it changes on the journey into fiction that makes the telling worthwhile.”

[Citation: ‘Amy Tan explores the interweaving of fate, fact and fiction’, Clea Simon, San Francisco Chronicle, 7 December 2003]

07 December 2007

Fate of the individual in modern society

A theme that often connects Czech writer Milan Kundera’s novels, and his short fiction, is the fate of the individual in modern society. It appears in almost all of his major works such as ‘The Joke’, ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ and ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. Although these novels deal with the fate of the individual in a modern Communist society, I feel, the theme is equally applicable to any modern society.

However, Kundera’s use of this theme is not new. The fate of the individual in modern society is a common theme among fiction writers. Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence, James Joyce, and not to forget Franz Kafka, among many others, have all traversed this territory much before Kundera. But what I like about Kundera is that he presents his case, and his characters, in a light-hearted manner, interweaving fact with fiction.

Although Kundera’s writing lectures us on modern Czech history, this history is presented as the context in which his characters shuffle around and live their lives. This is the place that his characters occupy – a place created by Kundera’s imagination and the factual recorded history of Czechoslovakia. Added to this is Kundera’s play with philosophy, which he presents to us, almost as a discourse, through his ‘narrator’.

Kundera’s stories, and the characters within them, unfold in a sort of step-by-step manner – in an interweaving of fact and fiction and philosophy, within which his characters struggle to discover themselves and find joy (if only for a short while). All in all, a pretty interesting construction for a novel, don’t you think?

05 December 2007

Meaninglessness

Relationships are not single-dimensional entities. Every relationship is made up of two or more persons, naturally engendering two or more points of view. There is no single truth, or happening; only versions of it.

This idea takes central meaning in most of Czech writer Milan Kundera’s fiction. His post-Czechoslovakia novel, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, completed in Paris (where he had moved with his wife sometime after the Soviet invasion) and published sometime in the mid-1980s, is a classic example of his thinking and his writing style. In most literary circles, at least from Western eyes, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is acknowledged to be Kundera’s most famous work.

The narrative in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is simple, telling the stories of two couples: Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and Franz.

The longer of the two stories is about a divorced womanising Czech neurosurgeon Tomas and Tereza, an ordinary country girl working in a restaurant. Tomas and Tereza marry, and Tereza becomes a talented photojournalist. When the Soviets invade and take over Czechoslovakia, the couple defects to Switzerland. However, on discovering Tomas’ infidelities, Tereza returns to Czechoslovakia. Tomas follows her, giving up a promising career.

In Czechoslovakia, Tomas is forced to leave his job at a hospital when he refuses to retract from an article he had written, which contained anti-Soviet sentiments. So, he takes up a menial job as a window cleaner, while continuing with his womanising. Tereza becomes a housewife, staying home with their dog. Later, to deter Tomas from his infidelities, as well as to escape from the State secret police, the couple moves to the country to live simple happy lives, until their death in a car accident.

The shorter story is a relationship between Sabina, a Czech émigré artist in Switzerland, and Franz, a married Swiss lecturer. Not only do the two persons in this relationship have different backgrounds, they have different minds as well Рand the relationship is fraught with misunderstandings. They eventually part ways: Franz to live with a female student and then die a nonsensical death at a protest march in Thailand; Sabina to live to a ripe old age in the United States.

Although the narrative in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is simple, Kundera continues to explore his favourite theme of different points of view that relationships encompass. He examines relationships from different angles, presenting different perspectives of the persons involved in the relationships. So different can be the perspectives in a relationship, Kundera believes, that he introduces a makeshift vocabulary of misunderstood expressions in the novel.

And, in quintessential Kundera style, he uses a narrator in the story to present another point of view, explaining matters to us rather philosophically. For, Kundera believes, since people experience relationships differently, they interpret relationships in their own respective ways… leaving very little margin for understanding each other. The concept of ‘lightness’ in this context is, perhaps, nothing but meaninglessness.

04 December 2007

The volatility of relationships

“Marriages collapsed for all sorts of reasons, but presumably you never really knew why unless you were involved in one.”

The above quote from William Trevor’s novella ‘Reading Turgenev’ (in ‘Two Lives’) may explain why I, at 48 years of age, am still at a loss as to why my parents decided to separate after 29 years of married life. In those 29 years, something had gone wrong in their relationship, perhaps even brewed over many years, before my parents came to the conclusion that they were no longer compatible as a married couple, and decided to part ways.

This reality, this happening, this incompatibility in marriages and man-woman relationships has always haunted me. Although I have felt alone in my inability to understand it, I have often found similar sentiments in contemporary literature. For, I have found, much of today’s literary fiction deals with this very theme of incompatibility in marriages and in relationships between men and women. In fact, in the works of two of my favourite authors, this is a common occurrence.

Many novels and short stories of Irish author William Trevor are apt examples of this theme. Perhaps more so are the novels of Czech writer Milan Kundera. Whereas Trevor adopts a gentle style in his narrative (such as in ‘Reading Turgenev’), presenting bittersweet love stories or mismatched couples, Kundera’s novels (such as ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’) are hard-hitting existentialist tales built on egos and ignorance.

While Trevor narrates stories of ordinary people in unhappy marriages, in passive acceptance of the situations they are in, Kundera clinically lays bare every relationship, comparing and blending the philosophical aspects with the carnal. When Trevor offers us relationships marred by infidelities or deceit, we are wooed as much by the romance as we are by the grief experienced by the protagonists. With Kundera’s novels, where infidelities and misunderstandings abound, we are sucked in (and sometimes repelled) by the rigours of the man-woman relationships.

While Trevor’s novels and short stories appeal to our softer senses, touching upon tender emotions in a quiet manner, Kundera’s appeal is a churning of cold rationality with the raw sexuality that his characters experience.

Perhaps, marriages, and man-woman relationships, are a combination of all these traits and experiences – and are, therefore, more volatile than what they seem from the outside. Only those involved have knowledge of their relationship’s strength or frailty.