from The Boat
In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, the columnist John Semley recalls listening to an episode of the podcast In Our Time. The podcast convinced him to spend an afternoon rereading Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegory about Stalin’s rise to power. This was in the days leading up to last week’s U.S. presidential election, and in his desire to put recent American history into some kind of discernible context, Semley confesses to finding Orwell’s novel unconvincing; he decides that the barnyard allegory focusing on pigs and horses as stand-ins for Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, et al. appears almost indulgent given the weight of recent events. Semley turns instead to non-fiction: a biography of Stalin himself; the first volume of a new biography on Hitler; and Bruce Springsteen’s recent memoir.
Semley’s craving to read “something about political power and control that wasn’t also a story about talking animals tottering around hind-legged in bowler hats” reflects a familiar charge that gets levied against works of fiction, especially those that deal with fraught matters of history or politics. Why read something imagined when one has access to books detailing actual events, about people who actually lived them?
“Forget novels,” Semley writes, “with their made-up heroes learning trite, imagined lessons about life from which we’re meant to somehow benefit by proxy. To hell with poetry, with its delusive rhythms and prettied words dangling like garish baubles on an empty page. This was real reading.”
One detects a whiff of wilful hyperbole in all this, though the argument is standard enough, and Semley makes a good case for it. Indeed, dipping into Volker Ullrich’s gargantuan biography Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939, one is dumbfounded by the degree to which the conditions and personalities surrounding the rise of Nazi Germany parallel many of those in America today. Semley is surely right to suggest that knowledge and understanding of history can provide a more cogent and coherent explanation for our present situation.
And yet I do not share Semley’s expressed desire to purge my bookshelves of fiction, poetry, and drama in favour of straightforward, factual non-fiction. The counterarguments are equally well rehearsed: fiction promotes empathy, humans are natural storytellers, and there is a strain of emotional truth that fiction can provide that is absent in most non-fiction. Far from being indulgent or inadequate, made-up stories about imaginary people have a unique ability to access a part of our humanity that is at once edifying and unifying: when we want to know what it was like to live in Russia during the Napoleonic era, we turn to War and Peace; Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front puts a staggeringly human face on the atrocities of the First World War; and Joseph Heller’s blistering satire Catch-22 is more honest and revelatory about the absurdity and moral vacancy of war than any number of non-fiction studies combined.
Fiction is also useful in providing the worm’s eye view of history: by focusing on individuals caught up in the relentless sweep of events, novels, stories, and poems help us to understand how individuals respond to their circumstances, and – at best – allow us to see those circumstances from a perspective other than our own.
Nam Le’s story “Hiroshima” is an example of a work that addresses one of the truly terrible events of the 20th century – the dropping of the atomic bomb on the titular Japanese city. But it does so by zooming in on the experience of Mayako, a third-grade girl who has been torn from the bosom of her family and placed in a putatively safe spot in the hills outside the city. Mayako’s older brother is serving in the Emperor’s army in China, as did her father until he was injured; he is now a Shinto priest back home in Japan. Mayako’s older sister, though young enough to have been evacuated along with Mayako, also wants to serve her country, and lies about her age to gain acceptance into the Young Women’s Volunteer Corps and the Students’ Patriotic League.
Le is adept at dramatizing the insidious ways poisoned patriotism infects the minds of a compliant citizenry: slogans such as “Waste is the enemy!” and “Do without until victory!” serve to placate the hungry populace, and rote mottoes – “Should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State” – operate simultaneously as propaganda and indoctrination.
“Hiroshima” is painful in its portrayal of the human toll war takes, most especially because it is seen through the eyes of a child, who is largely uncomprehending of the enormity of the situation. Mayako’s father used to delight the girl by teaching her to distinguish between the noises various kinds of cicadas make; when war comes, he teaches her to distinguish between the sound of various warplanes’ propellers. Mayako reassures herself that she and her family are safe when she hears the sound of a single plane, because the “cowardly Americans drop bombs only when they have hundreds of planes, grouped like geese, when the sky sounds like heavy thunder.” The sound of the lone B-29 carrying its deadly payload does not overly bother Mayako, which is both ironic and heartbreaking in context.
Le addresses issues of loyalty and honour, so central to the Japanese psyche, in respect to both family and country, and uses general knowledge of historical events to place a psychic distance between his reader and his central character. The technique is something fiction is uniquely able to deploy, and it serves to elevate the mood and emotional impact of the story.
History, the old saw has it, is written by the winners. Le’s story is valuable for providing perspective from the other side – not the generals or power brokers, but the innocent individuals who were forced to live, and condemned to die, as a result of those men’s actions. Dictators and autocrats exist and thrive by scapegoating and dehumanizing the other; fiction is well placed to restore some measure of humanity to those who might otherwise risk being swept under the rug of global events. Knowledge is powerful, but as every demagogue knows, so is emotion, and by harnessing a reader’s emotion, fiction might just be able to elevate the better angels of our nature to do the work of opposing tyranny and hatred when it appears in our midst.