"The Narrative Imperative"
Northwestern University Writer-in-Residence
Northwestern University Center for the Writing Arts Lecture Series
November 5, 2003
It has often happened to me after a reading or at some public event that a reader will come up to me and say: "You know, you should write a novel. Your books read like novels and I think you'd be really good at it."
This common remark -- which I suspect many writers of narrative non-fiction hear a lot -- has puzzled me. "Well, if my books read like novels why do I need to write a novel?" I find myself thinking. "Isn't what matters that you are having a reading experience that gives you many of the pleasures of fiction while working with factual elements?"
I want to use this occasion to examine two things: the fetish of fact and the narrative impulse. And to examine how they work together or whether they are mutually exclusive.
When I think about what it would mean to fictionalize some of the subjects on which I have written, I find myself extremely resistant. I have the greatest respect for fiction and used to write fiction myself. Reading novels is what probably drew me into the kind of work that I do. And yet the practice of journalism, from the basics of reporting that were drilled into me in journalism school to the tedious but necessary chore of fact-checking (my first job in journalism), the business of writing footnotes and trying to document everything in my work, has had a profound effect on me. My fictional muscles -- such as they were -- have atrophied. It has become extremely important to me that every detail I use in my work "actually happened," as we are best able to ascertain it. Whenever I read historical fiction or films based on historical events, I find myself asking: Did this actually happen this way? What documentation are they basing this on? Even when reading books that are generally considered great, such as Margerite Yourcenar's "Memoirs of Hadrian," I kept (perhaps reductively) asking myself: did this detail come from Suetonius or did she make this up? Is this credible or is this is the product of a 20th century imagination?
It seems tremendously important to me that the details in my first book, "Benevolence and Betrayal," a book about five Italian-Jewish families during fascism, actually happened. In many instances the details I found in the historical record seemed more incredible than anything I could have made up. In the first part of the book, I set out to write about a Jewish-fascist family. One of the distinguishing things about Italian fascism is that Italian fascism did not embrace anti-semitism for the first sixteen years of its time in power, and was in power for eleven years before Hitler became chancellor of Germany so that the equation between fascism and anti-semitism that did not exist before that time. As result about one in three Italian Jewish men were members of the fascist party -- roughly the same proportion as the population at large -- and some 210 qualified for the "certificate" of the March on Rome certificate, given to people who made special contributions to the fascist revolution. One of these especially meritorious Italian Jews was a man named Ettore Ovazza and I was extremely interested to try to understand that it meant to be Italian, Jewish and Fascist. I can still remember the thrill I experienced, on going through the papers of Ettore Ovazza, that his father who had been president of Turin's Jewish Community, as well as a supporter of fascism, had placed the words, "Patria, Fede and Familia" "Fatherland, Faith and Family" on his gravestone. Before undertaking my research, I had suspected that for Italian Jewish fascists these concepts must have been mutually re-inforcing rather than contradictory but to find them together in a kind of trinity seemed like a perfectly constructed literary symbol.
I had a similar thrill of excitement when I found the same mingling of nationalism, religion and family duty in the diaries of Ettore Ovazza. Moments after his only son was born, Ovazza placed an Italian flag on the cradle above the sleeping infant and next to it a Jewish family heirloom -- recreating symbolically that same trinity: Fatherland, Faith and Family. The child was born on a day celebrating Italy's entrance into World War I, and when he hears a military band pass by playing "Gionezza," the fascist hymn, he takes the child to the window and says "Look, you were born under a lucky star, look at the New Italy passing by!" he said, recording the scene in his diary.
All these details were tragically poignant to me because I knew at the time that this same son, Ricardo, was born under anything but a lucky star, that he would be murdered when fatherland, faith and family were found to be in profound opposition. His father, Ettore, had insisted on remaining in Italy even after the racial laws were passed, even though his two brothers left the country and urged him to follow. When the Germans invaded Italy in September, 1943, Ettore and his family fled to a hotel on the Italian-Swiss border, but misreading German intentions, wrongly thought that they would only be interested in their son, who was then of military age. They sent Riccardo with a guide to cross over the border into neutral Switzerland. He was either betrayed by the crossing guard or captured, then killed. The Nazis then went to the hotel where the Ovazzas were staying, rounded up the family and killed them all -- not even bothering to deport them.
After the war, there was a criminal investigation of the massacre and other guests at the hotel were interviewed. They revealed some extraordinary details of the Ovazza's last days, that Ettore Ovazza registered in the hotel under his real name, that carried with him in his suitcase and proudly exhibited a photograph of Mussolini signed and dedicated to Ovazza. He evidently thought this would protect him from all harm. That after the Nazis came to the hotel, that the guest staying in the room directly beneath Ovazza could hear him pacing up and down most of the night before the Germans were to take him away. It was well-documented that the Germans shot the Ovazzas, then chopped them into pieces and burned them in the stove of a school nearby. The janitor of the school testified that the Germans beat pots and pans in order to hide the noise of their dirty work and she reported that months afterwards, her young son found a human tooth while playing with the ashes from the stove.
These are details -- that if I had made them up -- would, I suspect seem trite, contrived, too perfect, and yet they happened, or at least they are in the historical record and I have every reason to believe they happened. The fact that they did happen gives them, I think, a weight, a substance and a kind of pathos that they would lack if I had made them up. Walter Benjamin wrote famously about the "aura" of the original work of art and I think historical facts partake of this same aura for rather similar reasons. Reality has a powerful hold on us, which is in part why we have things like Reality Television holds such a fascination for television viewers, and why we often see the term "Based on a True Story!" placed into movie advertisements. The notion that something is based on a true story gives heft and credibility to a film.
But our relationship between reality and fiction is complex and ambiguous. Some readers seem to attribute less value to fiction that draws on elements from real life, as if they had caught an author cheating when they discover he or she used actual incidents in their work.
Vladimir Nabokov, wrote:
"It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (usually false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a "true story." Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself?"
In fact, the annoying question most fiction writers face (their equivalent of 'you should write a novel.') is whether their novel is autobiographical. The implicit assumption (with a hint of schadenfreude) is that if that to force an author to admit his or her real life source is like foiling a magician's trick by pointing out the trapdoor through he makes things appear or disappear.
It is, of course, irrelevant whether Tolstoy drew on details from his life to make Anna Karenina and War and Peace and whether he distorted them in transforming them into art. In the realm of fiction, they acquire a truth of their own.
Various post-modern thinkers who have tackled the subject of historical writing have posited that, by virtue of placing facts into patterns, we inevitably turn them into one form of fiction or another. Do we, by making patterns or narratives out of the great, confused mass of historical data create something that is purely our own construction and does not have any meaningful relationship to what actually existed in the past, or, in the case of journalists, external reality?
To many journalists this might seem like little more than an academic parlor game question. But I find that it is something that I have thought about quite a bit over the twenty years I have worked as a writer. My first job in journalism as a "reporter-researcher" at Newsweek, where my principal tasks was "fact-checking." I was always struck by the fact that we would turn ourselves inside out trying to ascertain whether so-and-so's middle initial was Q. or T. but our stories would contain sweeping assertions of a dubious nature. "Everyone in Paris knows..." "The mood in London is decidedly x..." Thus, all the single verifiable facts in the story might be accurate, so far as it goes, but the story itself half-baked opinion or sometimes largely bunk.
Also, I have often thought when doing stories for major daily newspapers, the New York Times in particular, that the formula of supposedly objective journalism, with its on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand format, in which the journalist leads you through a ping-pong game of opposing quotations has always struck me as highly suspect. Anyone who has practiced it has said to himself, "Now, who can I find who will give me a quote that says X?? We often prime our sources trying to get them to tell us what we want. The idea that the journalist has no real point of view is certainly fictitious. Moreover, the claim of absolute neutrality, sometimes seems to me flat-out dishonest. The average television discussion show -- the McNeil news hour or programs on CNN -- with its two or three experts on one side, its' two or three experts on the other, creates the impression that reasonable men can differ on almost every subject and there is no right answer as to whether, let's say, the Bush tax cuts primarily benefit the wealthy or contribute substantially to the deficit. Precisely because I believe in facts, I think in some cases, the abdication on the part of the journalist's part, of any responsibility to adjudicate to the best or his or her ability the claims of both sides is itself a highly ideological position. The choice of experts and the framing of questions insures that the "middle ground" they find occurs in a highly circumscribed space that will do nothing to threaten established opinion. I myself prefer and feel it is more honest to do a piece with a point of view and that at least makes the reader aware of that bias. There are, of course, plenty of subjects in which I don't think I have the answers, don't have settled opinions and a piece that explores various points of view is the most useful thing I think I can do. But for example, if I do a story on Silvio Berlusconi, the television tycoon turned Italy's prime minister, I have a strong point of view. If the piece examines whether or not it is a good thing for Italian democracy to have one person control, simultaneously, so much public and private power, I think there is only one answer, no. And yet I have seen a number of stories that dance around this question with the usual, on-the-one-hand/on the-other-hand ping pong game that, in my view, have left a false impression of the situation.
But admitting that our biases and internal narratives that influence what we write, is, I think, quite different from saying that facts don't exist or that there is no substantial difference between fact and fiction. Despite, my qualms about Newsweek journalism, I ended up with a lot of respect for the fact-checking process. As a critical reader, I think I am capable of compensating for bias and point of view, but it is very difficult if you cannot trust the basic facts in the piece. If a piece tells you that the budget for public housing has gone up when it has, in fact, gone down, the reader is totally lost. and despite the fact that I am uneasy with the one-on-one-hand on the other hand formula, I frequently practice it (when writing for the NY Times) and believe it can have a genuine value for many pieces. If you have written let's the Italian press where there is no fact-checking and a history of people making up facts or statistics to suit themselves, you appreciate the standards of professionalism that exists in most major American newspapers. While I have often called sources hoping that they would tell me what I wanted to hear, when they have said to me, "No, that's not the way it is. It's really not that way" -- I have changed my stories accordingly. When several people in a row tell me that, I may decide that the basic thrust of the piece needs to change and I end up with a very different story, and be quite happy about it. That is in fact what reporting is for, discovering new information. While I don't believe in objectivity, I do believe -- despite their current Orwellian abuse of these terms by Fox News, in fairness and a sense of balance, in considering other points of view, even if you end up rejecting them and arguing against them. I think it's a very good thing that a conservative can read the New York Times and find ammunition for his world view there.
The problem of truth in non-fiction is particularly interesting in the case of those of us who practice narrative non-fiction: do we by using fictional techniques -- plot, mood, pacing, suspense -- turn reality into fiction?
Indeed an Italian post-modern historian once said to me -- and this was not intended as criticism on her part, perhaps even a strange form of postmodern compliment -- that there was no difference between a novel about fascism and something like "Benevolence & Betrayal," neither had any greater claim to historical "truth."
But before explaining my own disagreement with this position, I want to talk a bit about the status of "truth" in narrative non-fiction -- something that I have found myself thinking about.
There is no question that as we impose order onto the messy, infinite mass of potential facts of which the present and the past are composed, we create a narrative. In "Benevolence & Betrayal" the memories of survivors (albeit tempered by documents and secondary sources) looking back on events from their youth may have in all likelihood tinged the book with a subtle element of nostalgia. The process of telescoping twenty years of a character's life into several pages must involve some degree of distortion. The stories are meant to read quickly and smoothly and are highly dramatic and yet, no doubt, much of the actual life on which they are based may have been experienced as boredom, frustration, triviality (one character spent eight and half years in prison, another suffered unemployment as a result of the racial laws). So, does the smoothness and ease of the narrative leave us with a false impression?
Perhaps, but fiction of course is more than narrative. There was a novel written based very loosely on the story of Ovazza and it demonstrates to me some of the important differences between fact-based work and novels. The novel called Piazza Carignano takes substantial liberties with the story and tells the story of a descendant of a Jewish fascist who begins poking around his fascist ancestor's papers, discovers hints that the man may have had a secret homosexual life; all this is titillating to the narrator and his girlfriend, inspiring them to play out kinky gender-bending sex games. All this seems to tell us much more about the novelist and his fantasy life than it does about the fascist period. This does not mean that great novels cannot be written about this subject -- and were there evidence of Ovazza's homosexuality, it might have been interested to explore that -- but it is precisely the invented parts of the story that give a false ring.
And yet this does not entirely dispose of the matter. Another frequent reaction I get from readers may help us get to the heart of the problem. People will tell me how much they enjoyed "Benevolence and Betrayal" or Excellent Cadavers (a book about the Sicilian Mafia and Italian politics) they will then catch themselves and say apologetically: "I guess I shouldn't use the word ´enjoy' since the subject matter is so tragic.") But I think they were right the first time. My books were written to be enjoyed. I consider myself a writer above all, rather than an historian, and I write something for the pleasure of constructing a narrative, which has rhythms, and moods, the drawing of a scene, the creation of a deft transition, the creation of expectations in a reader which are then fulfilled, or overturned at a later point in the narrative. These are all narrative techniques which make a text compelling to read and are like the composition of a piece of music, in which a theme is introduced, disappears and then returns in another key at a later time.
Roland Barthes wrote about "le plaisir du texte" the pleasure of the text. Does this pleasure principle in the narrative inevitably then become a thing unto itself, a private pleasure that has nothing to do with the external reality we are also trying to explore. If we create a pleasurable text out of a painful period in history are we falsifying it?
Primo Levi in his wonderful memoir The Periodic Table placed as an epigram an old Jewish proverb, to the book, "misfortunes past are good to tell." Expressing one of the deep paradoxes about holocaust literature that we do in fact derive pleasure from writing about and reading about a great historical tragedy. In his final book, much less sunny than the periodic table, Levi wrote in the Drowned and the Saved, that in some sense it was almost impossible to tell the experience of Auschwitz since the accounts we have are those who survived. 90 percent of the prisoners at Auschwitz perished and we only have the accounts of the 10 percent who survived, inevitably skewing our sense of things since it creates the impression of a happy ending. The true history of Auschwitz then would be the untellable (and perhaps unreadable) story of the exhausted, glassy eyed prisoners who died face down in the frozen mud in hopeless despair.
The problem of the uncommunicability of this experience is something, of course, that many survivors worried about. Franco Schonheit, who had been a prisoner together with his father at Buchenwald, whose story makes up the last section of "Benevolence & Betrayal," had never told his story until he spoke with me. Up until then, he had never talked in any detail with his wife or children, a decision he explained in this way:
"I admire those, like Levi, who have succeeded in articulating their experiences but I am not able to," Franco says. "I remember when we returned my father said something that I thought hit the nail on the head...'Even if we do get out of here no one will believe us. It's impossible to give anyone an idea of what it was like. ' Even though I am talking here now, a person who didn't go through that experience can't imagine what deportation was like. I cannot explain to you what it meant to be in the hospital at Buchenwald, what it meant to visit my father who was suffering from bronchitis in the Buchenwald infirmary, because you in that moment will think of the Polyclinic in Milan or a hospital in Rome. It's outside the normal sphere of life. I can't give you an idea of the strangeness of those places, the strangeness of that life. "Stalin's purges, Vietnam, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia are all terrible, tragic experiences. But this was different. This science of organized extermination is unique. And because it's unique, it is untellable and unexplainable. Carrying a dying 90-year-old woman on a train in order to kill her 600 kilometers away even though she is going to die on the trip anyway -- belongs to a dimension of the absurd. "The Germans succeeded in creating a world of organized absurdity, with all the contradictions in life in a single hour. Of having no water to clean your shoes but having to keep your shoes clean. Of having to replace missing buttons, and maybe even a cuff on your pants without any thread or needle. Imprisonment does not have to be absurd. Punishment does not have to be absurd. Imagine a man being beaten who has to take 30 lashes across the back -- often enough to kill him -- and is forced by another man to count each lash in German, and if he makes a mistake in the counting, it has to be redone. And the man is not tied down, but has to remain still through the beating, counting. "Certainly these are experiences, but always absurd experiences. How can you learn something from an experience of this kind? That's part of the reason why I never talked with [my children] about it because those experiences teach nothing. They belong to a world of the impossible, totally outside the sphere of ordinary humanity."
Primo Levi, like a number of survivors, instead felt a powerful impulse to tell his story and worked feverishly on the memoir of his experience at Auschwitz almost immediately after his return. And Franco Schonheit, despite his reticence, obviously felt a need to tell his story, as he did to me and told it with great narrative force.
It is true, that there is joy in writing, when the writing goes well, that wonderful sense of the pieces coming together, things working together in harmony, the satisfaction of a much-worked after effect finally being achieved, but are these the pleasures that a composer feels when writing a sonata or a symphony? And do they have any more connection to the external world or the past as a symphony might? So what are we relating, what is the truth value of the narratives that we create out of real things?
And yet it has been a great source of satisfaction when several people -- not people whom I interviewed for "Benevolence & Betrayal" -- but people who had lived through that same period have said to me: "You got it right. You really captured the feeling of living through that time."
This, of course, is not very scientific evidence, but says I think something. What is it, though, that I have captured? Perhaps what I have captured is not the past, but a piece of the memory of the past. Narrative and memory, I think, are closely related. We don't remember the past exactly as we lived it, we retell to it to ourselves, creating a narrative much as we do in writing and so perhaps writing is something similar to memory, a parallel experience to life but not life itself or even a mirror of life. What I think I have often reproduced in work is not so much the thing I was writing about but a simulacrum of my own experience in writing about it. I wanted to create for the reader the excitement , the complex mixture of emotions, curiosity, surprise, the joy of discovery, the sorrow of some of the experiences, which were part of my own experience, the pleasure of getting to know the main characters of the book, of solving certain historical puzzles, of connecting things whose relation had been immediately apparent to me. I thus find myself in much of my work, especially longer narrative pieces, trying to create a kind of parallel experience, in which the reader is having a narrative experience that somehow takes them a simulacrum of what I experienced in reporting and researching the piece. Thus, even in writing about something tragic, one experiences a complex mixture of emotions, curiosity, surprise, pain, the satisfaction of getting to know the main characters, the joy of discovery, of working through a problem and understanding it better, of connecting two things that had never seemed related, an unexpected fact forcing you to revise your views. You want the reader to experience these same things, to make some of these same discoveries, and if you find your material passionately interesting you must make it passionately interesting to him or her. You cannot do that by reproducing exactly the experience you have gone through -- that would take months or years for them -- you must create a narrative vehicle that moves the reader through your material in a way that they experience something like the emotions you have felt. It is not the same as reality, you have condensed into something that takes a few or hours or days to read what you have experienced over months or years, and you have hopefully created something with some of the shapeliness of art out of the messiness of life. Thus history and memory are not the same, there is no one, but a written work, that reproduced all of the difficulty, boredom, hard work, of research and reporting, would not I think be a true picture. As Janet Malcolm has observed, if you give a reader a word for word transcript of speech, it does not really sound like yourself, we say, um, oh, leave sentences half complete, mix cases, you can make an intelligent and articulate person can seem unintelligent and inarticulate. [So, which is closer to the truth, the stumbling?] Thus we create a kind of illusion that we believe more closely approximates the truth -- as we understand it -- than the raw, unedited record.
I recently had a rather interesting experience of this phenomenon. During the summer of 1994, the last summer of my father's life, I did a long interview with my father about -- the first time he ever allowed me to sit down and record him -- his life. I remember those interviews have been an extremely special, almost magical moment for me. I finally listened, nine years later, to our first interview and was struck by how slow and dull it sounded. It was slowed down by a lot of long winded questions on my part and my father's extreme resistance to revealing himself. Only slowly and sometimes torturously, in often fragmentary form, did the -- to me -- fascinating bits and pieces of autobiographical revelations come out. So which is true: my memory of it having been a fascinating conversation or the irrefutable evidence of the tape recorder which made it seem, long slow and dull? I am inclined, in this case, to trust my memory, because the situation of being there -- everything that we both brought to this conversation that doesn't turn up on the tape -- his long history of reticence to discuss the past, the fact that he had been extremely ill and that we were both conscious that he did not have a long time to live, the good feeling and trust on his part to finally open up about certain things -- affected greatly the way I heard things in the moment. The fact that we were in the garden of a house near the sea, listening to the birds chirp, meant that the pauses and the time passed between the more interesting revelations was far less onerous to me then that it is now in re-listening to it. The most interesting nuggets of our conversation added up to an extremely interesting story, despite the hours it took to unearth them. If I were writing about this, as I may do at some point, I would want to reproduce the feeling I had on that afternoon, I would edit out most of the extraneous material, pluck out the most interesting revelations and create a narrative of my father's life that give the reader something of what I felt that day in hearing him talk about his life rather than the feeling of boredom and impatience I felt in re-listening to the raw tape.
Thus we create a kind of illusion that we believe more closely approximates the truth -- as we understand it -- than the raw, unedited record.
We capture the memory of an event rather than the event itself, just as an ancient monument is in fact something that exists in the present. In the Future of the Past, i point out that monuments are, of course, are not the past, but residue of the past that exist in the present, often in inevitably altered form. The great Sphinx or the solemn white statues of ancient Rome were, in most cases, painted gaudy colors which gave them a very different look and feeling than they no possess and often does not square with our elevated idea of antiquity. To some degree we transform these objects with our own contemporary ideas of what the past should be. But, as one Egyptologist pointed out, these ruins are still as much of the past as we are going to have, they still are full of information we can glean about the past.
This does not mean, in my view, that we simply make up stories based on the stories people make up about themselves. I do think there is an empirical part to what we do. For example, many people I interviewed of course allowed nostalgia, self-justification, family feeling to influence the way they presented their past to me. They tended to downplay their sympathies for fascism, if they had any, they tended to want to make their own family members look better than they might have been, their own role in events larger than it might have been. But one compensates for that sort of thing as best one can. For example, I interviewed a cousin of Ettore Ovazza, who insisted that he while he was personally close to Ovazza, their politics were quite different. In between our first and second interview, I found a bunch of letters that he had written to Ovazza, while a soldier in Ethiopia, full of the overblown rhetoric of the fascist era, about his being moved to tears planting the tricolor flag for the new Empire and so. I showed him the letters and he said: "Che stronzo!" "what a shit I was." I believe he was genuinely surprised, he had convinced himself that he had not been sympathetic to fascism because his later persecution as a Jew and his later hostility toward fascism had altered his view of his own past as well as that of fascism as a whole. This is why it seems to me so important to insist on the factual nature of narrative non-fiction: we have to change our narratives when we run into facts that block their smooth course. On their walking tour through the Hebrides, when Boswell was expostulating (like a theory-drunk graduate student) on the theories of David Hume regarding the non-existence of the material world, Dr. Johnson, listened impatiently kicked a great stone, causing himself some pain and said, "Thus, sir, I disprove Mr. Hume." I feel the same way about facts and a certain post-modern tendency to claim that there is no such thing.
Even post-modern historians such as Hayden White acknowlege that facts exist, it is, in his view, the patterns we put them in that turns them into narrative. But the post-modernists offer a bit of aid to those who practice narrative non-fiction.
Thus, while traditional historians -- of a more positivist brand -- may be somewhat leery of narrative -- the postmodernists, since they believe everything is narrative, are in some ways more open to it. They know for example that even non-narrative attempts to organize history -- let us Ferdinand Braudel's longue duree approach of explaining European history through population figures and gradually changing agricultural techniques -- is itself imposing a pattern or a narrative on history that is as much open to question as any other narrative. [It assumes that changes in crop rotation and the cultivation of the string bean is more important than the acts of kings and popes.]
It is a perfectly legitimate approach -- and I happen to like Braudel very much -- and it is a powerful narrative that has great explanatory power. But it is one of many ways of looking at that time of history. But this does not mean that all narratives are equal. The problem with the most radical postmodern interpretation of history is that if you say that "it is all fiction" it is all narrative, then in a sense, you are saying that there is no empirical basis to history or journalism and that all narratives are equal. One might be more rhetorically compelling, but none is closer to historical truth. This I don't accept at all: a holocaust negationist pamphlet does not have the same historical value as, say, Ian Kershaw's scrupulously researched two-volume biography of Hitler. Certain things -- the Norman conquest, the slave trade, the holocaust, the assassination of President Kennedy -- either happened or they did not. The meaning and weight assigned them by historians may differ, but any history that maintains that they did not occur has no explanatory power.
If we accept that all things we write, history or journalism, have a narrative, the conscious decision to use narrative, I think, may help us get at certain parts of the reality that are sometimes the most intangible and the hardest to capture.
One reason, why I originally wrote "Benevolence & Betrayal" was the feeling that the existing books, which at the time, were mostly fairly dry, scholarly accounts of the official relations between Mussolini and the leaders of the Italian Jewish community, and between Mussolini and Hitler. What seemed to be missing was the feeling of everyday life, the texture and strangeness of the times that came out instead from the fragmentary stories I had heard here and there, from my father and others, mostly anecdotal. I learned at a certain point that my elderly aunt had a letter written by the Gabriele D'Annunzio, the soldier poet who was the unofficial bard of fascism. In the document, D'Annunzio swore that my grandfather a dentist from a small town in Biellorussia had played a heroic, patriotic role in fixing the teeth of D'Annunzio's legionaires in Fiume, the now Yugoslavian town that D'Annunzio and a group of rebel Italian soldiers occupied in 1919, in order to claim the city as Italian. This mutinous action was a prelude to Mussolini's March on Rome and was sort of the Bunker Hill of the fascist revolution. I asked my father about it. "Well, I don't think he was really in Fiume, I think the whole thing was made up." What apparently happened was that one of D'Annunzio's last mistresses was an actress who was a devoted dental patient of my grandfather. She prevailed on the soldier-poet to draw up this document, which, incredibly, served as a kind of passport for my family in fascist Italy. The veterans of Fiume were practically like the founding fathers in fascist Italy. With this document and the unmistakable, dramatic, looping handwriting of D'Annunzio, they obtained citizenship. So, there are two possibilities, either this Jewish dentist from the town of Mir, played an obscure role in aiding the fascist revolution by fixing their dentures or, as in fact appears to be the case, the bard of fascism created a false document in order to help a Jewish dentist become Italian. When I mentioned how strange it seemed to me, my father was unimpressed. "It's not strange at all," my father explained, "this was the way things were in fascist Italy." [Elena Sangro]
These contradictions appeared to be embedded in so many of the experiences of so many of the people I interviewed or read about. And it seemed impossible to get at this kind of reality without personal narrative. For example, many official histories of fascism have made much of the fact that millions of Italian women donated their wedding rings in a ceremony known as the "day of faith," to help Italy's need for money and metal during the Ethiopia. It has been often portrayed as the high point of the regime's popularity. But many of the women I interviewed insisted that they had given up cheap substitute rings. they had participated out of social and political pressure, but kept their real wedding rings safely hidden at home. This would not show up in a purely statistical analysis of fascist Italy, which seem more purely factual.
Roland Barthes for example talks about the universality of narrative, the fact that story-telling and narrative is present in every culture. Narrative -- like language itself -- may be a fundamental way we have of organizing experience, understanding and relating experience.
To conclude, I will talk briefly about the way that narrative forms and events became intertwined for me in writing the book "Excellent Cadavers."
I had been interested since I first went to Italy in 1977 in Italian politics and went to live there in 1980 full time at a moment in which the country was tormented by political violence of various kinds: right-wing bombs, rumors of coup d'etat plots, life-wing terrorism, kidnappings, and a ferocious Mafia war in Sicily. I met people who drove in bullet-proof cars with body guards, people whose mothers had been kidnapped, whose son or nephew or older brother hadn't been seen in years and was thought to have disappeared into the netherworld of armed struggle. Understanding all this, reading the daily papers, became my constant preoccupation. But if you only read the papers, you would think that the country was descending rapidly into anarchy. But the world I was living and working in was also an extremely wealthy, increasingly wealthy, stable society where many Italians were enjoying peace and prosperity as never before. How to reconcile these seemingly contradictory realities?
When I read the mainstream American press -- the coverage in the NY Times and Washington Post in the Herald Tribune -- it was all accurate but seemed to miss the story. The stories treated Italy like any other European country -- France or England -- in which what the Prime Minister said or did on the previous day was the most important event. Italy, I understood, did not work that way. The prime minister was often one of the least powerful figures, possibly placed there by someone much more powerful who preferred to exercise power at a distance -- in the strange Kabuki theater of Italy's political life. And given the chasm in Italian life between government and civil society, what the government said or did might only tell you a little about what was actually happening in the country. I found that I turned to novelists, in particularly Sicilian writers, Leonardo Sciascia (a great writer of political detective stories), Pirandello, Giuseppe Lampedusa. These writers, with their special preoccupation between the often bizarre relationship between appearance and reality, were of far greater help to me in understanding the contradictory things about Italian life I was trying to absorb.
During the 1980's I became increasingly interested in the careers of the Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino for years but it never occurred to me to write a book about them until after they had died. Their death -- it sounds ghoulish to say this -- provided an end to the story. Their story became comprensible and tellable to me now that it had a beginning, a middle and an end. Does this mean that I imposed a linear pattern I had in my head on this material, forced the compex business of Mafia and politics to fit into a story that obeyed the Aristotolian unities. I hope not. Their story was genuinely tragic and lent itself to be treated as tragedy. During the late 1980's, Falcone and Borsellino had brought about the biggest Mafia trial in history, the so-called maxi-trial of Palermo and had won a stunning set of convictions. In a normal country, they would have received honors and promotions. Instead, Falcone was rejected for promotion and the office he worked placed in the hands of a magistrate who was hostile to his approach. He was then subject to a campaign of organized calumny, in which, while having done nothing wrong, he was forced to defend himself against baseless charges. Having at the time, already a fairly good idea of how things work in Italy and Sicily, it was quite clear that this lack of institutional support could well prove fatal for Falcone. It was like watching the middle act of a Greek tragedy. His death completed it. But his death -- combined with other things going on at the time, the fall-out of the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union, the economic unification of Europe, the growing corruption scandal that was decimating Italy's traditional political structure -- made me understand the Mafia in a different light. I could write about it, not because Falcone and Borsellino had provided an end to their story, but also because an era of history had ended and I began to see and be increasingly convinced that the two things were related: the Mafia had lashed out and killed these prosecutors (along with two other key people) because the historical changes going on had left the Mafia without its traditional political protectors and Falcone and Borsellino -- no longer held in check by the political system -- were much more dangerous than before.
But it was a series of narrative structures -- the works of Sciascia, Pirandello, Lampedusa -- the detective story and the tragic drama -- that framed these events for me and helped me understand and explain them. It is of course, only one frame, among many, that you could use to describe this period of Italian life, but, I would argue the structure did more than satisfy my desires to write a clean narrative with Aristotelian unity, but I felt it helped to explain a broad political and historical reality. Of course, this narrative is based on a hypothesis -- that the sudden leap forward in corruption and Mafia investigations that we saw in the early 1990's were a by-product of the fall out of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But I very much believe this to be the case, I believe (as do most experts on Italian politics) that this hypothesis has great explanatory power.
To finally conclude, I would say that if you operate in the world of words, narrative like language and metaphor are unavoidable ways of framing and understanding the world.
Copyright 2003 Alexander Stille. All rights reserved.