Saturday, June 26, 2010

Poetic license

I've just started reading Ariel Sabar's My Father's Paradise: A Son's
Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq (Kindle Edition, 2008). In
the introduction, Sabar writes:

"But while this book is by and large a work of nonfiction, it is not a
formal history or biography. Nor is it journalism. In parts of this
story where key sources had died or where memories had faded, I built
on the framework of known facts and let myself imagine how the
particulars of a scene or dialogue would be likely to have unfolded.

A book on one's family is by its nature a subjective exercise. But I
have tried in every instance to keep faith with the larger emotional
truth of my family's saga.

I changed the names of people who were involved in a family
controversy in Israel, because they are dead and did not have a chance
to defend themselves. I created a few minor composite characters in an
effort to streamline the narrative. Also, in the scenes in modern-day
Kurdish Iraq, I changed the names of the people who helped me, out of
concern for their security."

Protecting sources is perfectly legitimate. And it's Sabar prerogative
as an author to decide whether he's writing a book of history,
biography, or literature, or something in between. But I confess that
I'm a little uncomfortable with this approach. What I like most about
history and biography is the aim and commitment to find out what
happened and to report it accurately. As Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886)
famously put it, the historian's job, and the biographer's too, is to
report what actually happened, to tell the reader what it was really
like ("wie es eigentlich gewesen").

My mother Marta was a good storyteller. I remember, always, the
stories and anecdotes of my grandmother and great-grandmother (devout
churchgoers and casino gamblers in the northern Chilean city of La
Serena), of my grandfather (an architect and devout anti-clericalist),
of my great-uncle Pepe Gustavo (a con artist and wit of some note), of
the ghosts of La Serena (real and imagined), of our family's
decades-long efforts to find the treasure of the Pirate Drake (they
never did find it) and, above all, of my mother's own childhood (such
as the the day my grandmother talked her into going to the prom with a
dress made out of a curtain). Once, when I pointed out a minor
inconsistency in an anecdote, my mother said to me, "Do you want to
hear the truth of this story, or mere facts?"