Literary device does violence to the past
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.