Editorial July 2004 : Truth via Fiction By Hilary Williamson
In her review of Yasmina Khadra's Swallows of Kabul, BookLoons reviewer Barbara Lingens speaks of 'the power of fiction to illuminate truth in ways no newspaper account ever can.' If you're at all dubious, just think of the impact of Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List, which Library Journal called 'facticious' (and which Steven Spielberg made into a hugely successful movie). Indeed, the power and heartbreak of these fictional accounts lies in the facts that we know underlie them, whether they address historical or current horrors.
Reviewing Michael Ondaatje's contemporary Anil's Ghost, Sally Selvadurai tells us that the novel 'unhappily mirrors the reality of the once idyllic island nation of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka', conveying 'the lunacy of civil war and its implications for those who remain struggling through it.' And while Mario Vargas LLosa's Feast of the Goat is set during the historical period when the Dominican Republic was dominated by the 'old goat' of a dictator, Rafael Trujillo, the truths that it conveys about living under such a vile rule are universal, and sadly relevant to many countries who still suffer brutal misrule today. The novel's protagonist Urania (who can never forget her own past) wonders how other Dominicans manage to erase 'the abuses, the murders, the corruption, the spying, the isolation, the fear' from their memories. She feels that her 'horror' has become their 'myth'.
Many mysteries illuminate individual injustices, but a much smaller number take on systematic oppression. I enjoy Barbara Hambly's series set in 1800s New Orleans and starring ex-slave Benjamin January (e.g. Sold Down the River) for its empathetic communication of the evils of trading in human flesh - along with the usual greed and guilt that make for a compelling mystery. Martin Cruz Smith shed brilliant light on the challenges of survival in Soviet Russia in his Arkady Renko books, beginning with Gorky Park. And, more recently, I've been thrilled by Eliot Pattison's series starring Inspector Shan Tao Yun and set in the gulags of Tibet (The Skull Mantra to Beautiful Ghosts). On his Website, the author tells us 'That I have also been able to strike a political nerve in Beijing seems to be attested by the fact that my website has been blocked in China--I suspect I am the only mystery writer to be so honored.' Truth via fiction indeed.
Novels that give voices to the oppressed are not easy reads. Just as I sometimes find it hard to bear watching movies like Schindler's List, I often must grit my soul to read books like Pattison's Skull Mantra or LLosa's Feast of the Goat. But I hope that many more novels like these will be written - and widely read - to give voice to the voiceless and prevent horror from dissipating into myth.
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