The fiction of nonfiction

Published : Nov 22, 2017 12:30 IST

Umberto Eco. The Italian writer grapples with the categories of  fiction and nonfiction in his subversively exploratory style in "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods".

Umberto Eco. The Italian writer grapples with the categories of fiction and nonfiction in his subversively exploratory style in "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods".

IN his Charles Eliot Norton lectures delivered in the early 1990s at Harvard University, subsequently compiled as Six Walks in the Fictional Woods , Umberto Eco grapples with the categories of fiction and nonfiction in his subversively exploratory style. It is as if when he contemplates fiction long enough, it turns into nonfiction and vice versa. The fictional, or artificial narrative as Eco calls it, is partly comprised of and complemented by the nonfictional or natural narrative, and the other way round. At one point, Eco seems to suggest that if fiction were entirely unrelated to what is recognisable in the real world, or what is nonfiction, it would not be humanly cognisable. That seems commonsensical enough. What is perhaps not so self-evident is that nonfiction, which is rather simplistically considered as a repository of fact or truth, is never really all that simple or unadulterated. There are elements of spin, distortion of perspective, innate biases and cultural contexts which colour or compromise the so-called factuality of what is observed or recorded. One man’s nonfiction may even be another man’s fiction, much like one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

It seems that behind the jargon in vogue these days of “alternative facts” and “post-truth”, almost as if like their raison d’etre , there lurks the dissatisfaction, the sense of inadequacy, with facts and truth as we have known and experienced and accepted at face value till now. What makes for this new urge to redefine these well-worn concepts is the widening, as against the deepening, of the public sphere and the surge of exchange and interaction, of opinions and facts, on digital, online platforms. If a glass being half-full is a statement of fact, the same glass being half-empty becomes the alternative fact. When express truth becomes platitudinous, and proves insufficient in illumining our condition, we seek beyond it to find intuitive communion with a belief system that poses as a higher truth. Digital technology’s multimedia aspiration seems to be to progress from text, visual, video and audio into the immersive state of knowledge experience. It is the idealisation of the virtual over the material.

Towards the very end of his last lecture, the last chapter of the book, Eco talks about how to “deal with intrusions of fiction into life...” and how “reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters”. He says we will continue reading fictional stories, suspending disbelief, to make meaning of our lives: “Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived. Sometimes we look for a cosmic story, the story of the universe, or for our own personal story (which we tell our confessor, or our analyst, or which we write in the pages of a diary). Sometimes our personal story coincides with the story of the universe.”

An epiphanic experience while on a visit to the science and technology museum of La Coruna in Spain clinches this conflation of the personal and universal for him. The curator of the museum takes Eco to the planetarium where a surprise is in store for him. The lights dim and to the accompaniment of a lullaby by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla on the soundtrack, the planetarium’s ceiling slowly configures back into the same sky under which Eco was born on the night of January 5/6, 1932, in Alessandria, Italy.

“Almost hyperrealistically,” Eco recalls, “I experienced the first night of my life…. The planetarium used a mechanical device that can be found in a great many places. Perhaps others have had a similar experience. But you will forgive me if during those fifteen minutes I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning. I was so happy that I had the feeling—almost the desire—that I could, that I should die at that very moment, and that any other moment would have been untimely. I would cheerfully have died then because I had lived through the most beautiful story I had ever read in my entire life. Perhaps I had found the story we all look for in the pages of books and on the screens of movie theatres: it was a story in which the stars and I were the protagonists. It was fiction because the story had been reinvented by the curator; it was history because it recounted what had happened in the cosmos at a moment in the past; it was real life because I was real, and not the character of a novel.”

Even without that conclusive edifying personal anecdote, under Eco’s critical gaze, the two, and too, neat categories of fiction and nonfiction are already unsettled and collapsing into one another. Fiction draws on nonfiction as freely as nonfiction takes recourse to fiction. The Film Southasia (FSA) 2017 festival held in Kathmandu from November 2 to 5, which was essentially a curation of 63 of the best documentaries made in the countries of South Asia over the last couple of years, tellingly demonstrated this conflation, this mutuality, of the two.

Voyage of personal catharsis

The entry that was the joint winner of the first prize at the festival, Demons in Paradise , is a voyage of personal catharsis of the director-protagonist Jude Ratnam, in which the fiery imaginary of Tamil liberation from Sinhala domination in Sri Lanka is pitted against the reality of internecine, mainly cruelly LTTE-led, attacks that decimate the Tamil militant groups, and is tempered by the goodness and kindness of sundry Sinhalese individuals and families providing succour and support to their Tamil neighbours and friends in defiance of the majoritarian aggressive chauvinistic mood. There is more grey than black in the tragic retelling—and for the protagonist, reliving—of the cause that was as much defeated by the ruthless military might of the state as it was betrayed by the power politics of the Tamil resistance fighters themselves. The victory of the Sri Lankan armed forces is pyrrhic. The military defeat of the Tamils is unsustainably demeaning. There is no closure, not yet.

Nepali immigrants working for a living in abysmal conditions in coal mines in the north-eastern parts of India is a calamitous enough theme. An eleven-year-old boy with a sunny disposition, Suraj, at the centre of it, who, with unwieldy pickaxe, ventures into the dark cramped bowels of this inhospitable terrain to cut out a future for himself, because he has lost his mother and his father is a chronic drunkard, makes it searingly engaging. In this memorable film, Fireflies in the Abyss , director Chandrasekhar Reddy and his crew stay with the group like dogged chroniclers who have won their confidence and who can, without artifice, record their lives, shunting between the pits and their hovels, fairly intimately, capturing their very private moments with a matter-of-fact simplicity that is devastating, and yet retaining that light touch that gives us colourful characterisations from the deadening amorphousness of coal. The cruel paradox of the lure of their home in Nepal that keeps them away from it in order to save enough to go back to a decent life there seems, at the end of the film, their unending story.

Speaking about gaining someone’s confidence, it is incredible how Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Naqvi wormed their way into that of the fundamentalist cleric and Islamist cultist, Abdul Aziz Ghazi, who shook the Pakistani establishment from his Lal Masjid, or red mosque, in Islamabad from where he preached and taught his jehadist doctrine, through a twisted, mind-numbing religious indoctrination, to scores of impressionable young minds, and which had to be taken like a fortress in a war, in 2007, by the armed forces of the government. Abdul Aziz’s mother, brother, son and 150 students died in that action. But the man remains as unrepentant and unrelenting after this as he was before it, asserting without any qualms, in fact with unabated rabid fervour, that if he had a hundred sons he would martyr them all to his desperate cause.

The forcefulness of his personality, his poisonous spell over his believers and his devastating candour with his interlocutors (the filmmakers who follow him about), are pitted against the story of a sensitive girl who escapes from the red mosque and wants to learn about the world other than as warped religion prescribes it, a local elected leader who courageously sets out to run a normal school where children can learn the things they do at their age, the secular public mood against such force-feeding of religious dogma and intolerance in young minds, and the Herculean effort of a prominent activist, the nuclear scientist Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy, to speak rationality and secularism to blind and blighting faith.

It may not be the film-makers’ fault that the man at the centre of this constantly brewing storm, the defiant cleric Abdul Aziz, demands and commands our attention and reluctant awe. The abnormal has that effect on the human psyche. The film makes no false promises, offers no easy denouement. You are either one Among the Believers or you are not. Period.

There are other more heartening and enthusing profiles like the intrepid ones of the Tenzings of Pakistan who spur and support, and bear a sizeable physical burden of, the mountaineers who seek to scale the peak of the K2 mountain, the second highest in the world, located at the border between China and Pakistan, and in the estimation of the veteran climbers, more treacherous and hazardous to negotiate than Mount Everest. Brazilian film-maker Iara Lee tells the story of K2 and the Invisible Footmen , about the unsung porters who risk limb and life for a pittance, but nonetheless share the excitement and challenge of the principal climbers whom they are contracted to serve. The glory, every time the peak is scaled, is not to be theirs, but without them the task would be impossible.

The understated but powerful film by Mahera Omar, Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist , about a young driven architect who dedicates her professional skills to bettering the living conditions of the very poor, largely migrant, inhabitants of a slum in Karachi with open sewers, no water supply and zero infrastructure, for which she pays with her life because her plans run foul of the land and public resources-grabbing mafia, points again to how cheap life in the subcontinent has become in these impatiently market-driven times for anyone who acts on behalf of the dispossessed against aggrandising vested interests. Perween Rahman’s fault was that she did not subscribe to the illegal power lobbies that ran the system in each locality; that she had a different vision of inclusive development; that she saw the Dubai or Singapore model of development as an incongruous imposition on the natural growth of an Asian society like Pakistan.

There was, understandably, more of gloom and the seamy side of life showcased in the festival because that is the given in this unequal part of the world. So when kites bloom in a riot of colours in the Ahmedabad sky in Hardik Mehta’s Famous in Ahmedabad , it takes your breath away in a fun splurge sort of way. Young Zaid, the ace kite capturer and flier at the centre of this carnivalesque seasonal celebration is the same age, at eleven, as Suraj in the docu-feature on coal mine labourers. Whereas Suraj struggles to see in the dark dingy mines below, Zaid’s sights are set on the blue skies above, on a kite to be cut, on a cut kite to be caught. With bubbly abandon and infectious joy he criss-crosses the roads of Ahmedabad in unruly peak traffic, clambers lithely on to rooftops, chasing a drifting kite he must get to before all those others in pursuit of it. When flying his kite, he is all provocation and challenge, daring rivals to tangle with him. It is game, revelry, rivalry, bonhomie, fulfilment and disappointment all rolled in one and thrown up as a brilliant burst of a film. Zaid’s adoration of his sky game is as complete and compelling as Emerson’s of multifaceted nature: Give me a kite and a sky, “and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous”.

What is common to many of the films in this festival collection is that they cannot be publicly screened in the country in which they were made, whether in India, or Pakistan, or Sri Lanka—so much for how democracy and freedom of expression are unravelling in the subcontinent. Kathmandu, though, continues to be an oasis of free creative expression in the region, although there are hints from those who are in the know that we may not be able to take that for granted for far too long. But at least for now it has a legitimate claim to being south Asia’s cultural capital.

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