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]


Madhuri said...

I think the use of I comes naturally when you are writing from one person's perspective. To think of it, an omnipresent, God-like narration, who can observe everyone and their thoughts is slightly un-natural and uses a bit more thinking.

runawaysun said...

Unnatural? Perhaps. It certainly requires more thinking. Confusion arises when the author becomes a key character in his own novel. That’s because the author, necessarily, has the job of creating (and developing) all the characters and the plot for the novel. The reader can be misled by this.

Javier Cercas comments on this in the Richard Lea (Guardian Unlimited) article I had linked to in my post. Richard Lea writes: “After the success of Soldiers of Salamis, he tells me, people would stop his father in the street and say "I thought you were dead", because the fictional Cercas had lost his father.”

Madhuri said...

I certainly think he took it a little too far by calling the fictional character after his own name!

runawaysun said...

It looks that way. I guess creative people should be allowed to experiment.