CITY OF WORDS
The craft of untruth has been perfected
When strife invades a land, Lies pile up like sand. —German proverb, quoted by the historian Marc Bloch
Our most pervasive inventions are often not what they seem. When the art of writing was invented more than five thousand years ago, not by poets but by accountants wishing to establish how many sheep or goats were bought or sold in a commercial transaction, it was not made explicit (and still isn’t) that the art of reading had to be invented beforehand, so that the system of dots and squiggles meant to convey the message could be deciphered by the reader. Likewise, it was not evident that the power that writing bestowed on its users, of communicating experiences across space and time, entailed as well the power to tell lies.
An early example comes from Sumeria in the first half of the second millennium BCE, when the priests of the Temple of Shamash, in Sippar, set up a monument to commemorate the renovation of the temple and increased the royal stipend assigned to it. Instead of marking it with the correct date, they dated it in the reign of King Manishtushu of Akkadia (c. 2276−2261 BCE), thereby granting the temple a venerable antiquity that justified the increased stipend. The inscription ends with this reassurance to the reader: “This not a lie but the strict truth.”
Innumerable other examples, from then to this day, show how the craft of untruth, in the apparent reporting of facts, has been perfected. No doubt oral communication is equally prone to lying, but somehow words set down in writing carry a stouter conviction than those same words spoken out loud. As Samuel Goldwyn so eloquently put it, “An oral contract is not worth the paper it’s written on.”
Journalists—reporters, memorialists, historians—have long known how easy it is to report what in recent months has come to be known as “alternative facts.” The techniques are many, from the medieval recourse of “lying with the truth” to the use of selective sources of information and euphemisms such as “collateral damage.” Whatever we mean by the truth of an event can be distorted, coloured or changed entirely. When we read a piece of news, we have not so much to suspend disbelief as to place belief and trust in a certain reporter or newspaper that we deem reputable. This trust is all too often misplaced.
Until recently, in my vagabond life as a writer, I was fairly naïve about this danger. From time to time, in a review or a profile, a critic would give information about me and my work that was not true, but I shrugged these off as honest errors or even private spite. But since I became director of the National Library of Argentina, a year ago, all this changed. The opposition newspapers in Argentina—those whose proprietors oppose the government that appointed me—began to publish articles by the library’s exdirector and his allies accusing me of all sort of sins.
It was interesting to see how these attacks worked. For instance, the first exhibition we organized at the library was one on Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s major writer and director of the library for many years. Because our library has only one (minor) Borges manuscript, I begged for and borrowed a number of others for the exhibition, among them the manuscript of “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” lent by an American bookseller friend. In order to carry the manuscript with me from New York to Buenos Aires, we had to have it insured for half a million dollars, and the insurance company demanded, quite naturally, that armed guards accompany me from the airport to the library, where we could store it in the safe. Next day, Página 12 (the main opposition paper) published a short report saying that the new director of the library had
arrived with armed guards and that “never since the military dictatorship” had such a show of weapons been seen in the National Library. There was no mention of the Borges manuscript and no journalist took the time to investigate the unusual “fact.” Borges has a story, “Emma Zunz,” about a woman who commits murder to avenge her father and then gives a false account of the events to exculpate herself. “Everyone believed her,” Borges concludes, “because essentially her story was true. False were only a few facts, the times and one or two names.”
I did not, however, expect to see this sort of reporting in Canada, “the true North strong and free.” And not in a paper so highly regarded as the Globe and Mail.
This is what happened. The Globe and Mail journalist Stephanie Nolen, recently appointed to the South America bureau, asked to interview me in Buenos Aires. Her reporting from Africa had been widely admired and I decided it might be safe to answer her questions. The resulting piece was anything but objective. Ms. Nolen certainly has a right to her tastes and political opinions, but I believe that as a journalist, she has an obligation to check her information carefully. The “alternative facts” she includes in her piece are many. She writes that the Library “cancelled most cultural activities,” something that can be easily disproved by visiting the National Library’s site (which is appearing in a new design): https://bn.gov.ar/. Anyone taking a few seconds to check will see that we have numerous ongoing exhibitions on a wide range of subjects, as well as a great number of lectures, workshops, concerts and films—many more than during the previous administration. Just in the first weeks of April, we invited Javier Cercas, Dany Laferrière, Alessandro Baricco and Nélida Piñon to have public conversations at the library, which they carried out to packed auditoriums. The library did stop hosting regular meetings of Carta Abierta, a group of fervent Kirchnerista intellectuals who met to discuss government policies and excluded all opposing voices. But the library certainly did not favour an anti-leftist intelligentsia. Among the present and forthcoming exhibitions are one dedicated to the investigative journalist and fiction writer Rodolfo Walsh, murdered by the Junta that ruled the country in the seventies; another celebrating the anniversary of Gabriel García Márquez´s One Hundred Years of Solitude; another on the readings of Che; another on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution and its influence on the development of socialist ideas in Argentina.
The National Library of Argentina is increasing its contacts with other libraries in the region and around the world to better share our resources and to learn from one another. However, no mention is made in Ms. Nolen’s piece about the many agreements signed for joint events and shared digital material with, among many others, the National Library of Spain, National Library of Colombia, the British Library, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and, most important for me personally, the National Library of Canada, with whose help we are setting up a large exhibition in June for Canada’s 150th anniversary. Ms. Nolen’s depiction of the Library does a disservice to the entire library community that has welcomed our efforts for increased cooperation.
Distortion of facts is also apparent in her piece. When Ms. Nolen says that I “heaped public criticism on the previous library administration, which was run by a widely respected leftist intellectual,” she does not say that I had for almost a year carefully preserved silence, as much as I could, about the previous administration. I expressed reservations in a short piece I wrote for the Literary Review and (most unfortunately) in the interview with Ms. Nolen. It’s not at all the case that the previous director, Horacio González, maintained what Ms. Nolen describes as “arch civility.” In fact he often slandered the new library administration and me in the press, and also to other library directors, publishing a letter signed by many academic friends of his, and writers such as J. M. Coetzee, to whom he lied in order to obtain his signature. The details of this affair were investigated by the French journalist Philippe Ries and can be read (in French) on the website of the Mediapart Agency: https://www.mediapart.fr/search?search_word=manguel.
Ms. Nolen judges that I “won few friends here” (Argentina). In fact, there has been a great deal of positive reporting in the Argentinian press, and Ms. Nolen appears not to have noticed the dozens of intellectuals from both political camps who have accepted my invitations to contribute to our work. She says that I am “viewed as naïve at best, vain and ambitious at worst, and with little to show for himself after his first stint in the library kitchen.” By whom, may I ask? Certainly (with the exceptions of Beatriz Sarlo and Martín Kohan, who have a right to their opinion) not by intellectuals I respect. I could have given Ms. Nolen names, had she only asked. And as to having “little to show,” Ms. Nolen might have asked to see the dossier on our activities at the library over the last year, or spoken to any of the 836 people working in the library today (a few may be critical, but the majority is certainly not) about what we have been doing in this institution for the past eleven months. This last I find astonishing: to research an article on the National Library of Argentina and not interview anyone on the staff except the present director, and then to privilege the narrative of the exdirector and his cohorts. Yes, I made a mistake when I spoke of nepotism and said that Mr. Gonzalez had employed his wife and daughter at the library: as Mr. Gonzalez himself points out, he had employed his daughter and sister. I apologize for this error.
Ms. Nolen is a journalist of longstanding and high reputation, and I was surprised that in this piece she was not more thorough in verifying her facts. Having sympathy for Mr. Gonzalez and his policies is one thing; accepting his words unchallenged in a political climate of vicious antagonism is quite another. It is simply unethical journalism.
Under the new administration, the library staff has been working tirelessly to complete the catalogue and facilitate access to our heritage through digitization and exhibits, and I hope that more objective Canadians may have an opportunity to visit it, to use its wonderful resources and reading rooms, and attend its exciting slate of programs. However, Ms. Nolen reporting on Argentina risks skewing Canadians’ understanding and appreciation of the Library and the country, to the detriment of everyone.
Journalism suffers from what psychologists call the “perseverance of memory,” by which something learned through a convincing narrative is almost impossible to eradicate even if a mountain of facts disproving the story appears. Carl Gustav Jung wrote that the world is psychically infected by two groups of people: politicians and journalists. I never imagined I would be witness to such vivid proof of his judgment.
Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Curiosity, All Men Are Liars and A History of Reading. He lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he serves as Director of the National Library. Read more of his work at alberto.manguel.com and geist.com.