Lit­er­ary de­vice does vi­o­lence to the past

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN the early 1990s, Lloyd Jones left his na­tive New Zealand for two jour­neys that would trans­form his writ­ing and his rep­u­ta­tion. The first was to Bougainville, dur­ing the is­land’s block­ade by Pa­pua New Guinea. What he saw there emerged, af­ter a 15- year ges­ta­tion, as fic­tion. The novel was Mis­ter Pip, a care­ful con­coc­tion of se­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture and down- home sto­ry­telling that be­came a crit­i­cally gar­landed best­seller.

But it was the sec­ond trip that Jones wrote about first. Biografi was orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1993 as an ac­count of the au­thor’s visit to Al­ba­nia in the shell- shocked days fol­low­ing the col­lapse of com­mu­nism in east­ern Europe. The tiny coun­try had been sealed off to a de­gree ex­traor­di­nary even among its neigh­bours be­hind the Iron Cur­tain. When Al­ba­nia opened its bor­ders in 1990, it was for the first time since uber- Stal­in­ist leader En­ver Hoxha took power in 1944.

At the heart of Biografi was the story of Petar Sha­pallo, a pro­vin­cial den­tist who was a dead

Biografi By Lloyd Jones Text, 277pp, $ 32.95

ringer for Hoxha. Sha­pallo was plucked from his life — his fam­ily mur­dered, his iden­tity erased — and kept for decades in the gilded cage of the first sec­re­tary’s com­pound, to serve as the leader’s dou­ble. Ru­mours about Sha­pallo ( he van­ished af­ter Hoxha’s death in 1985) reached Jones and piqued his cu­rios­ity. So it was that the nar­ra­tive was largely given over to a search for Sha­pallo; and, af­ter his dis­cov­ery by Jones’s lo­cal agents, to the odyssey they un­der­took to­gether through Al­ba­nia, which ended, fit­tingly, in the moun­tain vil­lage from which Sha­pallo was orig­i­nally taken.

On first pub­li­ca­tion, Biografi was lauded for its knowl­edge­able, sym­pa­thetic yet clear- eyed re­por- tage, and for the qual­ity of its prose. Crit­ics and read­ers mar­velled at the story of Sha­pallo, a liv­ing metaphor for cit­i­zens’ loss of iden­tity in a to­tal­i­tar­ian state. He was the sort of char­ac­ter who, had he not ex­isted, would have de­manded in­ven­tion. And that, as Jones was even­tu­ally obliged to ad­mit, was ex­actly what he was: a ru­mour made flesh, a lit­er­ary de­vice, a fic­tional par­ti­san dropped over non­fic­tional ter­ri­tory.

The reis­sue of Biografi fol­lows the enor­mous suc­cess of Mis­ter Pip. Read­ing it, you feel as though that re­cent novel’s con­cern with iden­tity and au­then­tic­ity — the eth­i­cal prag­ma­tism it pro­poses, in which the truth is less im­por­tant than the sav­ing lies that get us through — was de­signed in part to re­ha­bil­i­tate the ear­lier work.

How­ever it falls to pub­lisher Michael Hey­ward — who, as au­thor of the mar­vel­lous The Ern Mal­ley Af­fair, is no stranger to lit­er­ary hoaxes — to com­plete the task. In an af­ter­ward to Biografi, he sketches Jones’s Al­ba­nian jour­ney, de­scribes the con­tention that sur­rounded the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, and clar­i­fies where fac­tual ac­count gives way to in­ven­tion. Hey­ward also asks what Jones thought he was do­ing ‘‘ mix­ing up fic­tion and non­fic­tion without let­ting on’’. One an­swer is that the left hand of the writer ig­nored what the right was do­ing. The im­pulse to in­vent was as pow­er­ful as the urge to take notes. For Jones th­ese seemed to be com­ple­men­tary ac­tiv­i­ties. He had crossed a line, but on the other side of it he could glimpse the ma­ture nov­els he was yet to write. He could not go back. What Hey­ward claims for Jones is an artist’s right, old as the philo­soph­i­cal revo­lu­tion of the late 1800s we call ro­man­ti­cism. It was then that thinkers first ar­gued that truth did not cor­re­spond to some pre- ex­ist­ing body of facts, ex­ter­nal to us and ob­jec­tively know­able. It was was not em­pir­i­cally dis­cov­ered, but gen­er­ated from within: truth had to be cre­ated by the striv­ing

of the in­di­vid­ual artist or creative per­son­al­ity.

Hey­ward asks us to read Biografi as a novel, a text based on ver­i­fi­able facts that also ap­peals to the ‘‘ higher truth of fic­tion’’. I am not sure that sim­ply swap­ping shelves gets it off the hook. This is not be­cause the mar­riage of fic­tion and non­fic­tion is wrong: writ­ers such as Aus­tria’s Thomas Bern­hard and Ger­many’s W. G. Se­bald have made a new genre from blend­ing the two, an ap­proach that gains strength from re­fus­ing to dis­close its fi­nal sta­tus as one or the other.

But there is an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween Se­bald’s work and that of Jones. As Ma­rina Warner re­marked re­cently, Se­bald makes a con­scious aes­thetic out of tan­ta­lis­ing read­ers with il­lu­sions of real ev­i­dence, of peo­ple, places and things. ‘‘ By writerly sleight of hand,’’ she sug­gests, Se­bald ‘‘ adapts doc­u­men­tary- style pre­sen­ta­tion to his imag­ined sto­ries.’’ Biografi, by con­trast, is an avowedly doc­u­men­tary text that asks us to stand wit­ness to the real crimes of the Hoxha regime. Any am­biva­lence re­gard­ing its sta­tus is ( or at least was) hid­den.

I sus­pect Biografi ’ s creative thread is more mun­dane re­quire­ment than con­sid­ered aes­thetic de­ci­sion. This is be­cause the doc­u­men­tary ma­te­rial is not enough. Here is Jones’s de­scrip­tion of his ar­rival, by ship, in Al­ba­nia: Faces peer down from the up­per floors of a grimy yel­low build­ing which is lo­cated al­most lu­di­crously, as if it in­tends to meet vis­it­ing ships on equal terms. Its up­per win­dows are miss­ing and some of the floors lack walls. The build­ing is a mouth­ful of bro­ken teeth. Here Jones dines in a can­teen: The fac­tory cafe is empty and, like an old food safe, bare but for the crumbs and lin­ger­ing smell of food long eaten. We sit at a ta­ble cov­ered with a soiled oil­skin cloth, and an old man in a white jacket brings a tray of cof­fee — and, sur­pris­ingly, and arm­ful of or­anges. And here he is in a ho­tel: Un­for­tu­nately there is no flush or run­ning wa­ter, ex­cept be­tween the hours of 3 and 6pm . . . I traced the evil smell in the hall to a tide of raw sewage which has risen from the bow­els of the com­mu­nal toi­lets just two doors away from my room.

Al­ba­nia in 1991 is a coun­try so ru­ined that Jones’s fine prose finds lit­tle to set­tle on. Without the firm skele­ton pro­vided by Sha­pallo’s story, Biografi would be a drab in­ver­te­brate. Per­haps Jones, un­easy in his aware­ness of this, sought a way out. Surely, too, there is some­thing not quite right about an ac­count that takes as its sub­ject the ter­ri­ble abuses suf­fered by a so­ci­ety in which the facts about in­di­vid­ual lives — the dossiers held on ev­ery Al­ba­nian were called biografi — were al­tered at will by the au­thor­i­ties, but which re­serves the right to air­brush its own nar­ra­tive.

The poet and es­say­ist Joseph Brodsky, writ­ing of the mem­oirs of Nadezhda Man­del­stam — an­other wit­ness to the to­tal­i­tar­ian night­mare, this time in Rus­sia — spoke of how the lu­cid­ity of her prose, the de­ter­mined at­tempt at clar­ity in rec­ol­lec­tion, were in them­selves an in­dict­ment of a sys­tem that al­tered his­tory to serve its po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. By in­vent­ing the life at the cen­tre of his oth­er­wise bril­liant book, Jones does vi­o­lence to a past in which too many have al­ready suf­fered. Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is a Syd­ney- based critic. Lloyd Jones will be a guest of the Bris­bane Writ­ers Fes­ti­val later this month.

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