As a reader, I find non-fiction as compelling as fiction. However, non-fiction becomes a minefield when polarising conflicts are thrown in. Biographies and autobiographies are usually straightforward affairs in which history has as much a big part to play as character. Memoirs or real-life-based accounts, however, are a different kettle of fish. I was reminded of their complex nature recently after reading a diary entry by the Libyan-American writer, Hisham Matar, in the London Review of Books.
Hisham was in Arkansas last year touring his latest book, a memoir entitled The Return (I am acquainted with his work through his novel In the Country of Men). At a public reading at a library, a Syrian woman asks him how it is possible for him to still be able to write with everything that has been happening in the Arab world for the last half decade.
Hisham’s response made me think of the relationship between politics and literature. A relationship that is less natural than many people might think and more nuanced than many others would prefer.
In between these two positions: one claiming that all literature ought to be political somehow or other, and another saying that literature and politics should never mix, the writer’s voice is lost. If an author’s oeuvre depends chiefly on adhering to one of these two extreme positions, the result will not be a work of art but a party manifesto.
By coincidence around the same time I read Hisham’s article, I had just finished The Gate, by the French writer Francois Bizot. The Gate is a powerful, detail-rich insight into the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Bizot is an ethnologist who is captured by young guerrillas and taken deep into the jungle. His interrogator happens to be the school-teacher-cum revolutionary Comrade Douch (sadly famous Comrade Douch) who would go on to kill thousands in the horrifying Tuol Sleng prison. Bizot was kept three months in the jungle. He was the only foreigner to come out alive from his group. All the others were murdered. The book stayed inside him for thirty years. This is the price of nuance.
Non-fiction by its very nature tends to be more tyrannical than fiction. Writers need their readers to believe that the way they are telling the story is the way it actually happened. In order to achieve this, sometimes they adopt the view that is more prevalent around them as opposed to the more truthful to them and their narrative. In doing so, they are exercising someone else’s imagination whilst sacrificing theirs. This is why it is so important to understand what the Syrian woman was saying to Hisham. I get it. In the face of horror, how can we pick up a pen instead of a gun?
Horror of the type being visited upon the people of Syria nowadays surely leads to trauma. One of the consequences of trauma is numbness. A mental numbness that cancels out some of our functions. We can still breathe, eat and defecate. But it is hard to create in those circumstances. This is what happened to many Holocaust survivors. The tragedy they had just experienced felt too unreal to make sense of it immediately. This is also why it is essential to read books like Primo Levi’s If This is a Man/The Truce. Far from adhering to a particular discourse, Primo comes up with his own one. One that is unique whilst not letting the Nazis off the hook, humourous whilst not “pretty-ing up” what happened in the gas chambers.
In the end Hisham tells the woman that, when faced with horror like the Syrian one, writers should still attempt to write. In doing so, writers should free themselves from any obligation, no matter how lofty the ideal. It is to literature that authors are contracted first and foremost. Writing about a conflict, or a difficult political issue, is fine. But above all, it must be literature.