What Literature Says About Life
Literature reveals a good deal about life. Even the most fantastic of narratives offers an understandable structure, breaks complex sequences down into something the reader can follow. As John Irving once wrote, you can’t get away with the sorts of things in novels that happen in life. A father can’t just die suddenly for no apparent reason, a mother can’t walk out to do the shopping and never return. Literature offers a way of seeing the world in a sort of prospective hindsight – you might be reading about a situation for the first time, but much of the action is most probably distilled from life’s randomness, explained in such and such a way, and set out as progress towards some sort of climax.
Through literature our lives make a rudimentary sort of sense, once removed.
Not, I should add, that it really matters what sort of literature it is. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that my concept of literature passes through comics, science fiction, the classics and much else besides. I don’t have the sort of bookshop literature- section snootiness in mind, just the telling of a tale, and telling it well. If a narrative explains something of the human condition it fulfils the requirement for literature.
Yet narrative doesn’t always work in the ways you might imagine. During the late 1990s I spent a good deal of time researching and pondering the Vietnamese tale “Tam and Cam”, an equivalent of what to many people will be the familiar “Cinderella”. As it turns out, the Vietnamese version of the tale could well be the original – the lines of transmission being long, defused and sometimes confused. But from the 1860s the two tales clashed, dragging literature and life together.
In 1866 French Marines went ashore at My Tho in what we would now call southern Vietnam, determined to place what they knew as Annam, particularly the Mekong Delta, under imperial control. It sounds a little distant now, but imagine the grief and sacrilege in the hearts and minds of Annamite villagers, the death and destruction that came with the stealing of another person’s plot of earth, the conquest of another land.
But amidst the confusion and dismay was the curious figure of Gustave Janneau, just out of his teens and within a year of abandoning the Marines for a distinguished career in colonial linguistics. As his compatriots did their best to destroy any sign of resistance, he was in My Tho collecting traditional tales, including the “Cinderella” analogue “Tam and Cam”.
Like “Cinderella”, “Tam and Cam” tells the tale of a downtrodden girl who finds her prince with the aid of a supernatural helper. Janneau’s translation was by no means as derogatory as those later produced by colonists, including the Governor-General of French Indochina, but he did accentuate something of the ‘confusion’ with which Annamese were said to regard their spiritual world. The supernatural helper – we know her as the fairy-godmother – is alternatively a spirit and a genie, depending on the translator’s whim.
So narrative intention isn’t always straightforward. What might seem like a reflection of spiritual indecision is actually the marker of a decision to ‘explain’ something by someone else entirely – in this case Gustave Janneau. And in any case Janneau didn’t really have to push his point very hard; in “Tam and Cam” the heroine only lives out her days happily after killing and cooking her step-mother, serving the result disguised as salted pork to her single evil step-sister. That would, to the casual reader, confirm the characterisation of the irresolute Annamite condition that Janneau crafted.
When he published Janneau’s version of the tale in a Saigon literary journal after the man’s death in 1912, Jean Ricquebourg introduced it as reminiscent of “Cinderella”. Yet, he wrote, “deep within the far-eastern jewel of France it is deformed, but the main subject is still recognisable.” The narrative still spoke of the struggle against injustice, that quintessential trope of the human condition, but it was somehow twisted, and inferior for it.
Life in the colonies was never quite what it could have been, or so it would seem.
What this tells us about life in general is not only that imagery is open to manipulation – I can easily turn your perspective to my own ends – but also, by extension, that the structure of recollection (or re-telling) is inherently flexible. The tale grows in the telling, or deforms if you like. Gossip becomes fact by repetition. Premise doesn’t always lead to appropriate conclusion. The list could go on.
Literature, in its many forms, speaks to us at the intersection of what we know and everything we don’t know, urging us to make a choice, to be resolute about the way things are even if we’re ignorant. From it we can learn a good deal about human ingenuity and deceit, as long as we remember that everything isn’t always as it’s made to seem. That’s the trick to making it through the twists and turns of this puzzling world.
(The illustrations in this post are all from Alicepopkorn’s photostream at Flickr. It’s well worth a visit.)