Pro­pa­ganda, poi­son and ma­nip­u­la­tion

Nov­el­ist Mar­cel Th­er­oux talks to Nick Ma­jor about the dark side of sto­ry­telling

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEWS -

THE poet Czes­law Milosz once said: “When a writer is born into a fam­ily, the fam­ily is fin­ished.” But what if that fam­ily al­ready con­tains a writer? In such cases, one can imag­ine youth as a long and fruit­ful ap­pren­tice­ship. This hap­haz­ard train­ing pro­gramme has pro­duced some qual­ity ma­te­rial. One won­ders how some writ­ers might have turned out un­der dif­fer­ent tute­lage. What would Auberon Waugh have been with­out Evelyn, or Martin Amis with­out Kings­ley? Who knows. What is cer­tain is that, how­ever hard they try, writ­ers of this kind can never shrug off their child­hood. Their ori­gins are al­ways easy manna for jour­nal­ists hunt­ing for copy.

Mar­cel Th­er­oux might have pre­sented nu­mer­ous doc­u­men­taries, pub­lished six nov­els – his lat­est, The Se­cret Books, is a tour de force – and writ­ten travel ar­ti­cles for years, but he is still used to be­ing “the other Th­er­oux”. His fa­ther is the great travel writer Paul Th­er­oux, and his brother, Louis, is a house­hold name on ac­count of his tele­vised Weird Week­ends. I meet the ami­able and laid­back Mar­cel Th­er­oux – tall, well­groomed, wear­ing jeans and a light blue shirt – on a bright shin­ing day at the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Book Fes­ti­val. Nat­u­rally, we start chat­ting about his fam­ily. Does it bother him that peo­ple can­not talk about him with­out ref­er­ence to his fa­ther and brother?

By way of an­swer­ing, he tells me a story. Ear­lier this year he made a doc­u­men­tary called Putin’s Fam­ily Val­ues, about how the Ortho­dox Church are prop­a­gat­ing a rein­vig­o­rated con­ser­vatism that is shap­ing mod­ern Rus­sia. A few weeks be­fore it aired, Th­er­oux was in Vietnam, in a bub­ble tea shop, when some­one from the Ra­dio Times rang him up. The in­ter­viewer said: “Lis­ten, you sound like Louis and you look a bit like Louis so how come you aren’t as suc­cess­ful as Louis?”

“I was think­ing,” he says, “why aren’t you as suc­cess­ful as Louis? I don’t even see my­self in the same game.” He is in the same game as his fa­ther, how­ever. But there is lit­tle fam­ily ri­valry and the el­der Th­er­oux fre­quently gives him notes on his travel writ­ing. Grow­ing up, the young Th­er­oux un­der­stood that “books had an im­por­tance in our house that

The more I’ve gone to Rus­sia the more I’ve been fas­ci­nated by it. Rus­sia’s his­tory is like a mi­cro­cosm of all the fas­ci­na­tions that have gripped the world in the 20th cen­tury, but taken to the ex­treme

they didn’t have in other houses. But it meant there was no mys­tique around writ­ing”.

As the above en­counter high­lights, Th­er­oux is worldly in per­son and in print; he lives in Lon­don, but he was born in Uganda and spent two years in Sin­ga­pore while grow­ing up. At one point, he stud­ied in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Yale (English lit­er­a­ture was more to his taste). A con­stant trav­eller, he wrote The Se­cret Books on the road, writ­ing out scenes and test­ing para­graphs long­hand in three large note­books (he was in Jaipur when he was “on the home straight”). His novel’s fic­tional land­scape is sim­i­larly global. It moves from 19th­cen­tury Kerch, a vil­lage on the shores of the Black Sea, through Tsarist Rus­sia to revo­lu­tion­ary Paris and back east to a Ti­betan monastery, as it fol­lows the life of Ni­co­las No­tovitch.

No­tovitch was a real man. As proof and as a use­ful cu­rio, Th­er­oux has brought an old, leather-bound copy of No­tovitch’s The Life Of Saint Issa, the hereti­cal gospel orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1894 that pur­ports to doc­u­ment Je­sus’s lost years be­tween the ages of 12 and 33. It sits on the ta­ble be­tween us in our small white mar­quee, the kind you might find used as a field hos­pi­tal in some far-flung war-torn coun­try. It was 2002 when Th­er­oux be­came in­ter­ested in Je­sus’s life story. “I thought there was a pos­si­ble doc­u­men­tary to be made about Je­sus in In­dia or if Je­sus was a Bud­dhist. It is an in­ter­est­ing cur­rent in Chris­tian­ity. You are pre­sented with the au­tho­rised Bi­ble, but there is a whole load of apoc­ryphal texts that aren’t in the Bi­ble, and there are other in­flu­ences on Chris­tian­ity that we don’t even talk about.”

Then Th­er­oux dis­cov­ered No­tovitch’s book. “I thought, flip­ping hell, what an amaz­ing In­di­ana Jones-type story, that a Rus­sian jour­nal­ist was root­ing around in a Ti­betan monastery in 1887 and found a man­u­script that showed Je­sus stud­ied Bud­dhism in his lost years.”

No­tovitch’s book has, un­der­stand­ably, been treated with scorn and is widely viewed as a hoax. The jour­nal­ist in Th­er­oux could not re­sist trav­el­ling to the monastery in Ladakh to speak to the vice­ab­bot. “A part of me con­tin­ues to hope that it is true. The novel al­ways presents you with a pos­si­bil­ity that it is true.” This pos­si­bil­ity is de­lin­eated through Th­er­oux’s care­ful use of fram­ing de­vices. The cen­tral one has the nar­ra­tor find­ing a 1933 record­ing No­tovitch made of his life story and ad­um­brat­ing it for the reader.

“I re­ally wres­tled with how to tell the story. At one point, I did start writ­ing it as a con­ven­tional his­tor­i­cal novel. Not quite, ‘it was a dark and stormy night as Ni­co­las No­tovitch rode up to the monastery’, but you can imag­ine what it might have been like. There was some­thing dis­may­ing about it. I thought, I want to sum­mon him up and ask him what hap­pened – to give him the best pos­si­ble chance to state his case.”

TH­ER­OUX doesn’t take this truthtelling too se­ri­ously. That is partly why the novel is pit­ted with hi­lar­i­ous anachro­nisms, such as 19th­cen­tury char­ac­ters dis­cussing Pussy Riot and Darth Vader; it

sounds as if it shouldn’t work, but it does, con­stantly test­ing our faith in what we are read­ing.

Hold­ing No­tovitch’s book – which is also a kind of mem­oir – I am re­minded of how many other books are con­tained within The Se­cret Books. I open the frail pages but only cast a cur­sory glance through them. They are writ­ten in French, which was no prob­lem for Th­er­oux, who can also speak Rus­sian. Rus­sia has been a life­long in­ter­est. His pre­vi­ous novel, Strange Bod­ies, is in part about the Bol­she­vik God Builders who thought they could use science to re­alise their dream of im­mor­tal­ity. “The more I’ve gone to Rus­sia the more I’ve been fas­ci­nated by it. Rus­sia’s his­tory is like a mi­cro­cosm of all the fas­ci­na­tions that have gripped the world in the 20th cen­tury, but taken to the ex­treme … the Rus­sian Em­pire was a huge part of his [No­tovitch’s] makeup, and I thought, this is my way in. When I found out he was Jewish it deep­ened my un­der­stand­ing of Rus­sian his­tory be­cause I didn’t un­der­stand how deep Rus­sian anti-Semitism goes, and what a con­sti­tu­tive part of Rus­sian his­tory it is, what in­flu­ence Rus­sia had over the foun­da­tion of the state of Is­rael, and how it in­cu­bated Rus­sian anti-Semitism.”

In The Se­cret Books, No­tovitch’s life is in­ti­mately bound up with Rus­sian spy and arch po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tor Rachkovsky, who runs Rus­sia’s se­cret ser­vice head­quar­ters in Paris. Rachkovsky blames Jews for all the dis­or­der in the world and his work cul­mi­nates in the pub­li­ca­tion of the no­to­ri­ous an­tiSemitic tract, The Pro­to­cols Of The El­ders Of Zion. From this point, the novel be­comes a bat­tle of the books. One of the cen­tral rev­e­la­tions of the se­cret gospel is that it ex­on­er­ates the Jews of any guilt for Je­sus’s death. No­tovitch, record­ing his story in 1933, is all too aware of how his­tory can be turned against an en­tire peo­ple. That one of the cen­tral tenets of Chris­tian­ity is called into ques­tion gives him hope that the world might lis­ten to his truer, less hate-filled story. But Rachkovsky knows that peo­ple need to hate, re­gard­less of the truth. As he says about his sin­is­ter pub­li­ca­tion, “the thing about a work like this one is that those who be­lieve don’t care about the facts. It doesn’t have to be true, be­cause it feels true.”

All this talk of rewrit­ing his­tory is a re­minder that out­side our small tent writ­ers are busy ped­dling their own faith in sto­ries. “Ev­ery­one says how won­der­ful and gen­er­ous sto­ry­telling is, but sto­ries are other things as well. Sto­ries are pro­pa­ganda and poi­son and ma­nip­u­la­tion,” says Th­er­oux.

If his­tory is the clash of com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives, the 20th cen­tury could be de­scribed as a vic­tory for pro­pa­ganda over truth. He didn’t set out to write about some­thing so grand, and nei­ther did he set out to write about anti-Semitism or the ruth­less du­plic­ity of politicians. Af­ter com­plet­ing The Se­cret Books, how­ever, he re­alised it held “un­in­ten­tional echoes” at a time of fake news and when racial ha­tred is on the rise. (“Rachkovsky could have been in Trump’s cab­i­net, don’t you think?”) Th­er­oux now un­der­stands that an­ti­Semitism is “the ha­tred that never dies” and the “shape of other prej­u­dices”. But he is not sur­prised at what he learnt on his jour­ney to fin­ished novel. Af­ter all, where hu­man­ity is con­cerned, “there’s noth­ing new un­der the sun”.

The Se­cret Books is pub­lished by Faber & Faber, £12.99

Pho­to­graph: Sarah Lee

For Mar­cel Th­er­oux, son of fa­mous travel writer Paul and brother of TV jour­nal­ist Louis, Rus­sia has been a life­long in­ter­est

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