The Knowing Narrative

1 November 2008

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.

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Out of Time

13 July 2008

On Hadrian and Being Harried

History is battleground of ideas, a terrain laid with hidden dangers and the sad remains of methods passed beyond the pale. You might imagine – or even remember – the dull drag of history across the page, but the dates and happenings are never just there, ready formed, waiting to be relayed. Historians take positions, form perspectives, dash in, out and around conventions that the reader may never recognise and would rarely care to know. History is, after all, a profession for some and carries with it the arcana of half forgotten lore.

But a feature of history on the run – magazine articles, television interviews, newspaper columns – is that the traces of skirmishes past, of major shifts in thinking, just barely show through, if at all. Take Robin Lane Fox’s account of the Roman emperor Hadrian in yesterday’s Financial Times, for instance. It’s a battle fought against the shadows of opponents long since gone.

Lane Fox is a long established historian at New College in Oxford and knows well the intricacies of ‘classical’ Europe. He has written with authority on Alexander the Great and published his Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian to a very favourable reception. Spend even a moment reading his Financial Times article and you’ll see why – his style is fluid but clear, his logic straightforward and his capacity to engage the reader in considering the relationship between past and present exemplary in a field that has elevated waffle to a high art.

Writing to coincide with the opening of an exhibition on Hadrian at the British Museum, Lane Fox argues that ancient history “is both powerfully near to and far from our own world”. His case for Hadrian as “a thoroughly modern emperor” is not entirely personal – it flits agilely between the emperor’s enthusiasm for hunting to address the recent hunting ban in England, his love of a younger man, which Lane Fox reminds us was by no means the same as contemporary homosexuality, an invasion of what is now Iraq and the always troublesome problem of Jerusalem. Hadrian solved the problem brutally, by levelling the city and forbidding Jews entry to the site.

There’s pause for reflection in that for us all.

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