This decision to read non-fiction for so long was not taken deliberately. For my Easter holidays last April I took three books to Havana with me, one of which I was about to finish. The second one was The Help, which didn’t appeal much to me (entertaining, but playing to a certain audience of which I, sadly, did not consider myself a part) and then Jerusalem arrived. That set a chain of events in motion that culminated last week with me devouring the final pages of an epistolary memoir. Volver sobre mis Pasos (Going Back) is an intimate and candid portrait of the late Cuban film director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, a.k.a. Titón. Through the letters he wrote to fellow film-makers, officials of the Cuban government, friends, colleagues, his children and his wife, we gain access to the life of one of the most fascinating figures of Ibero-American cinema in the last fifty years. It seems to me, more than six months down the line, that the decision to read so much non-fiction was an attempt to forget The Help’s cliché-ridden style.
|Yes, but how real is it?
Fiction is born from the disappearance of the self and the appearance of a third person that replaces this self. This metaphorical third person can be, ironically, narrated in the first person singular (Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd comes to mind, especially that innovative twist at the end). This process is dialectic in and of itself, whether that be pursuing a truth the writer wants us to find, or arguing two views without leading the reader to think that only one of them is valid. Of course, I am referring to good books. Mediocre books give you the solution to the puzzle on page eight. The rest is just entertainment.
Where, then, does non-fiction lie? Do essayists and historians give up their selves for a metaphorical third person? If they do, that would imply bias. I certainly noticed it in Jerusalem, especially towards the end as the plot moves to the present-day. Bear in mind also that the book’s author, Simon Sebag Montefiore is a renowned novelist in his own right. That means that this biography of the holiest of cities is not just a historical and cultural account of the peoples who have inhabited it but also a gripping, page-turning thriller that starts with Titus’ siege of Jerusalem in 70AD and continues with Suleiman the Magnificent, the Crusades, the life of Jesus, etc. Eat your heart out, Ian Fleming! And you thought your James Bond was tough.
This – gentle – battle between non-fiction and fiction reminds me of the question short story authors are often asked: when will they finally write their long-awaited novel? The assumption that short stories are not real literature or that they are a lesser form, resonates with me when I analyse non-fiction versus fiction. Usually one is maligned at the expense of the other.
For starters we question the writer’s neutrality. I did that, too, when I read last summer Víctor Jara’s biography, written by his widow. To be honest, I did not mind Joan Jara’s bias; after all she was the one who had to identify her husband’s dead body in the morgue. I would lose any sense of neutrality straight away. But we do tend to think that the author has an axe to grind and by choosing a fact-based narrative they will render their vendetta a more veritable argument. Secondly, the absence of a deus ex machina device, as they have in fiction, limits the author describing real-life events somewhat. Where fiction provides a twist (even one that had not hitherto been hinted at), non-fiction supplies more conjecture. I am more lenient towards the former in regards to plot but expect a lot more from the latter when it comes to conclusions. However, does the word “history” not come from the Latin “historia”, via the Greek “historía”, which means “learning or knowing by enquiry”? This is where I think fiction and non-fiction cross paths. Both are attempts at answering questions, as well as asking them. They do choose different tools, though.
Memorias del Subdesarrollo is that kind of novella that blurs the line between the fictitious and the real; a style I really like. There was also another reason for me to take up non-fiction again. The book was adapted for the big screen by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the same man whose letters accompanied me for the last three weeks. A beautiful segue, I say, between non-fiction and fiction.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 8th December at 10am (GMT)