Indian Summer, by Alex von Tunzelmann: fiction and non-fiction
As you know, one of the recurrent discussions in literature concerns these two categories, fiction and non-fiction, and their borders. First, I have to say that the effort of categorising ideas, movements, disciplines, means and crafts is often unsuccessful and useless (‘I mistrust all systemisers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche), for many reasons: because of the human nature of authors (and of the critics, by the way), which obviously encompasses our intrinsic limitations, shortcomings, lies and mistakes; because of the difficult and often impossible definition of ‘truth’ (‘There are no facts, only interpretations’ – Nietzsche again); because of the weighty importance of the perspectives, objectives and cultures (when writing about history, for example). Of course, I’m mainly speaking about non-fiction, which should deal exclusively with factual events, and which for me is the strange one, more a utopian ideology than a strict literary category. In the end, I think, by reason of our being the children of our time (without an awareness of it) and of the continuous confabulation with our mind – our memories are always a stratification of various coatings, day after day, like a course of lasagne or a millefoglie, a multi-layer cake (‘Memory says, I did that. Pride replies, I could not have done that. Eventually memory yields.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche again).
Think about an historian writing in the nineteenth century, for example. Back then, colonialism was, you know, a ‘fact of life’. So, what would be his vision of events, people and changes? His perspectives would be sculpted by the dominant way of life, by the immanent philosophy, inevitably. Only an extraordinary artist with a sensibility far beyond the average would be able to write something against colonialism or at least be able to identify, define and mark it. In which category would such a work be placed, since – according to the standards of those times – it wasn’t ‘true’, and the writer wasn’t ‘telling the truth’?
Again for example, let’s read the first phrases of the Indian Summer – The Secret History of the End of an Empire, by Alex von Tunzelmann:
‘On a warm summer night in 1947, the largest empire the world has ever seen did something no empire had done before. It gave up. The British Empire did nor decline, it simply fell; and it fell proudly and majestically on to its own sword. It was not forced out by revolution, not defeat by a greater rival in battle. Its leaders did not tire or weaken. Its culture was strong and vibrant. Recently it had been victorious in the century’s definitive war.’
Alex von Tunzelmann is a British historian, born in 1977, and so pardonable because of her young age. I don’t want underline her mistakes in terms of historic perspectives (the British Empire didn’t give up, but was forced to come to an end, maybe by time and history at least; Gandhi’s movement was a real revolution; the British Empire was declining in a very readable way, also in cultural terms; the transfer of power was strongly determined by the development of the WW2, the fall of Hong Kong and Singapore for example, according to the best historians, and the rising myth and superpower of America; its leaders were tired and by now weak, so much so that Winston Churchill was not re-elected; etc.) but instead be aware that her ‘truth’ comes from her belonging to ‘a system’. Being a part of a system, for her it is extremely difficult to judge the systems itself. This is a law of nature, a mathematical law too.
We have to internalise Gödel’s theorems to understand the limits of the definition and sense of non-fiction. In a very simple synthesis, the first Gödel statement is: ‘Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be consistent and complete. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths, there is an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory.’ The meaning of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem is that any consistent effective formal system is incomplete: there are true statements expressible in its language that are unprovable within the system.
The second Gödel statement is: ‘For any formal effectively generated theory T including basic arithmetical truths and also certain truths about formal provability, if T includes a statement of its own consistency then T is inconsistent.’ The meaning of Gödel’s second theorem is that there is no hope of proving, for example, the consistency of a system using any finite means that can be formalised in a theory the consistency of which is provable in the system itself.
Or, in philosophical terms we can roughly synthesise that you cannot judge any system (in term of consistency, completeness, effectiveness and, in the end, of truth) using the means, tools or parts of the system itself.
Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are tremendously powerful, and represent a real revolution.
You can be a part of a system or you can choose: you can decide whether to be a part of the system. Think about an ideology or, trivialising the concept, about a football team. If you decide to stockpile your brain away, to put your brain into storage for the sake of A. C. Milan, just as an example, you won’t be able to judge objectively the system that the A. C. Milan is. Any statements about it are unprovable within the system.
Gödel’s theorems are a terrific argument against fanaticism and fanatics, against totalising ideologies and, in literary terms, against the pretence of knowing the truth, while being a part of a certain system for which we have to declare the consistency.
To digress a little from the literary focus of this piece, is it possible then to escape this tremendous constraint?
Maybe we can curb the effects of our belonging using our brain better and trying to gain a superior awareness of things using a helicopter view, by being above the things and being less involved. It is a tactical trick. But, strategically or existentially thinking, Gödel says that we have no hope unless we break the system and destroy it – maybe figuratively. In this sense, the first hero is a chick. To enter the world, the chick must break its shell; but his shell is its world – this is another quotation but I don’t remember by whom.
Going back to literature, I cannot see a rigid division between fiction and non-fiction; I have already expressed my opinion. Maybe because I’m attracted by the intermediate regions, by the fuzzy approaches. I don’t want to bother you again but the so-called fuzzy logic (FL) is a form of mathematical set theory in which predicates may have degrees of applicability, rather than being true or false. Not by chance, FL has pivotal uses in artificial intelligence.
So, I like books that weave facts and fiction and explore possible connections and alternative perspectives. One of this type of intermediate books is In Love and War, by Alex Preston, which tells the story of a man, Esmond Lowndess, swept up in the chaos of WW2 in Italy. It is very interesting, for example, that in 1937 in Florence, Esmond falls in with Norman Douglas. Norman Douglas (Austria 1868 – Capri, Italy, 1952) was a controversial writer. Initially, he was a travel writer and then a complete author, well known for his shocker novel South Wind as well as for his sexually despicable behaviour (he was an irremediable paedophile). Esmond’s story mixes not only Italian history but also the personal story of Norman Douglas, who is one of the main villains, creating a texture of fiction and non-fiction wires, which is nothing but a fuzzy genre.
As a quick synthesis of this literary area, non-fiction novels (such as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which is the benchmark of NFN) are meant to represent real figures and actual events but with fictitious dialogues and using typical fiction craft.
Historical fiction books (for example, The other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory and Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier) are usually set during a particular time, which is an important part of the story. They may present fictional characters or historical figures or often a mixture of the two.
Read The death of Napoleon by Simon Leys if you want to enjoy this kind of literature: a splendid book indeed, a jewel (‘As he bore a vague resemblance to the Emperor, the sailors on board the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer had nicknamed him Napoleon. And so, for convenience, that is what we shall call him. Besides, he was Napoleon.’ – Simon Leys).
Another sub-genre is sometimes called faction (from fact and fiction), which utilises the technique of mixing past events with current technology. Et cetera.
May I finish this long reflection using another quotation that underlines the power of our brains and indirectly of literature – and that could be the real payoff of the Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann, instead of The Secret History of the End of an Empire? ‘The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t.’ – Kathryn Schulz.