Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Historical Novel

Inspired by Salman Rushdie's book Shame, I've been reading up on the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh on Wikipedia. It's a pretty crazy history, war, corruption, religion, language, Cold War politics, etc. all had a hand in it.

Admittedly most of my knowledge of this area's history (including India) comes from reading Rushdie's novels. I don't know exactly how I should feel about this. It seems a little wrong to get your history from reading fiction. It seems like it would be better if I got my information from 'impartial' non-fictive sources. The thing is though that the history books don't give the facts in an easily digestible form and they tend to ignore the human element. I guess that since I'd rather know what people went through than what Bhutto said on what day the novel might not be such a bad source of information.

You've got to be careful though. Some books that purport to be historical fiction or use actual people or organizations as characters can be misleading. For instance, Dan Brown's popular books Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code, purport to be truthful, but are in fact very misleading. Brown may use actual organizations, but he takes some pretty big liberties with the structure, cannon, and facts of the Catholic Church. Great for a thriller sure, but don't pretend that you learned anything.

Other authors' books however I feel that I can trust. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose takes place in a historical context and appears to be pretty representative of the facts and controversies of the time. James Michner's books (of which I've read none) might fall into this category too.

Some authors such as Neal Stephenson in his Baroque Cycle are harder to parse. From what I can tell he's got most of his facts straight, but he inserts characters who never existed into pretty significant roles and that could be misleading. Luckily for the reader Stephenson inserts a glossary of names dividing up the real from the imagined characters of his books. It can be tough to keep straight, but at least he's honest.

I guess the lesson here would be that history is a list of facts, but the human experience is not so easily broken down into dates and places. Novels exist to convey things that are too difficult to put into simple terms. Sure we could say that the Bangladesh Liberation War had elements of genocide, but what do those terms really tell us about what it looked like. The novelist's (in this case Rushdie's) job is to move us away from the cleanliness of the word "genocide" and make us feel it. We can forgive some liberties with particulars so long as the mood is carried over and no truth is destroyed.

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