Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reality of Fiction

The world’s two most talked about people are John McCain III and Baraki Obama, men who have presented themselves to the US as potential White House tenants.

They are both authors of several books each, and they are almost equally good writers although Obama is better than McCain at pen.

Obama writes with ease and has both style and substance. Even when he speaks, style and substance are visibly present.

McCain is obsessed with heroism and honour which, in the US, come from a service in the army where McCain spent years as did his father John McCain Jnr II who died in 1981 and grandfather John McCain Snr.

McCain III books are usually about war heroes. No wonder in 2001, Jonathan Karp, then editor at Random House, asked Mark Salter for a book idea for McCain. Karp published Faith of My Fathers, McCain’s 1999 memoir, and it had been a critical and commercial success.

Karp asked whether McCain would answer the question: who are your heroes, and why? Heroes, McCain told Salter, who are my heroes? “And the first guy out of his mouth was Robert Jordan,” Salter recalls.

Now Jodarn is the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

“He’s fictional,” Salter replied.

“Yeah, I know,” McCain said, “but he was everything a man would want to be.”

He was everything a man would want to be? So, how real is fiction that a real man like McCain, someone as real as wanting to be in the White House, should want to be like a fictional character?

Hemingway’s Jordan is a college professor from Montana who goes to Spain as a freedom fighter in the war against the Fascists in 1937. He does his duty, falls in love and, at the climax of the novel, suffers a seemingly fatal wound from a shell.

In the last moments of his life, Jordan is left alone with his machine gun on a hill to die and waiting to kill a pursuing enemy before he himself succumbs. But in that moment he muses on love and fate and duty and death. “You have had much luck,” he thinks. “There are many worse things than this.... He looked down the hill slope again and he thought, I hate to leave it, is all. I hate to leave it very much and I hope I have done some good in it. I have tried to with what talent I had. Have, you mean. All right, have.”

Then comes the line McCain remembers best: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

“In talking about the book—which he does often—McCain seems to thrill to Jordan’s fatalism, the stoic acceptance of sacrifice in a larger cause, the image of a good man playing his part in the battles of his time, dying nobly in the knowledge that nothing on earth will ever be precisely the way we want it to be, but that we must fight on, for such is the lot of man,” says Jon Meacham, Newsweek editor, in an eight-page profile of McCain two weeks ago.

Jordan’s target, Lieutenant Berrendo, unaware that someone is lying in wait, is riding into range. “Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady,” Hemingway writes. “He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow.”

Jordan, at this point, prepares to take his shot—and the novel ends with these words: “He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”

This story ends in a tragic way, yet romantic too, because Hemingway leaves his hero alive, just for a moment, on the forest floor, preparing to do one last thing, noble thing for a soldier. McCain’s hero may hate to leave the world, but we do not see him do it: what we see, instead, is a good man hanging on, clinging to life, fighting on even at the point of death.

“He [Jordan] was everything a man would want to be,” says McCain of this hero depicted in his last moments of life, about to die, yet left alive.

No wonder McCain has been fighting for the White House for years. But perhaps the US is far away from Malawi and while it may ring social and economic bells, Kenya might do that better.

Matigari, the hero of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s 1986 novel of the same name, is through with his war with Settler Williams and the warrior is going home. It was 1986, and the fictional Matigari emerged from his hiding place and the pages of the novel.

“The real Kenyan police,” recalls literary scholar Frank Bures, “hunted the man people were whispering about, this Matigari who was roaming the country, escaping from prisons and mental hospitals, asking everyone where he could find truth and justice.”

The story is that Matigari taunted and challenged the paranoid regime of Kenya’s former president Daniel Arap Moi, and the president wanted Matigari stopped and arrested. But later, the police determined that Matigari was fiction and they seized all copies of the book so that people should not read this novel.

Why does fiction—an imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented—shake reality?

“It is because fiction is a reflection of reality,” says Bright Molande, a University of Malawi lecturer in a branch of literature called Literary Theory. “There can never be anything called fiction,” says Shemu Joya, author of Madam Diseh, a powerful short story that remains so decades later. (You are missing a lot if you haven’t read Madam Diseh in Namaluzi.)

Fiction is human imagination, says Joya, which comes from experience and experience is reality. “Fiction,” he says, is just another dimension of reality.

Fiction can be imagined. Yes. But can one imagine something out of nothing? Some artists will say yes. But a practical answer, as Joya says, is no. A cartoonist, for example, cannot necessarily imagine a face that does not exist. Take, the example of Amtchona. Isn’t there someone who looks like Amtchona?

Could it be that James Kazembe formed Amtchona out of nothing?

“In creating Amtchona, I was inspired by a man from home in Balaka,” says Kazembe. “He used to drink with his wife and sometimes they could fight, with the man winning today and the woman winning next time. The face is of that man. I just put in some exaggerations like the long neck, the jacket and the shoes.”

So, the conclusion of the matter is that fiction is created from reality and fiction reflects reality. In fact, fiction is just another dimension of reality, meaning fiction can solve real problems like HIV, Aids and violence.

“I would support that argument,” says Joya. “The way fiction does it is that it creates images in which people see themselves.”

The importance is that fiction points a finger at a person without necessarily pointing a finger at them. It would be evil to call someone a fool. But fiction can create a foolish character and people can identify themselves with such a character.

Chinua Achebe offers a practical example in Things Fall Apart. Ikemefuna is a boy given to Okonkwo by a neighbouring village which was defeated in a war. Ikemefuna lives in the hut of Okonkwo’s first wife and quickly becomes popular with Okonkwo’s children. He develops a close relationship with Nwoye, Okonkwo’s oldest son, who looks up to him.
Okonkwo, too, loves Ikemefuna, who calls him “father” and is a perfect clansman, but Okonkwo does not demonstrate his affection because he fears that doing so would make him look weak.

Now the oracle had decreed that Ikemefuna must die. Obierika, the wise man of Things Fall Apart advises his friend, Okonkwo, not to take part in the killing.

But Okonkwo, fearing fear, is the one who kills the boy when he runs for safety.

Obierika was not amused. But he did not call Okonkwo a fool. Instead, Obierika—who in a way represents the voice of Achebe—tells Okonkwo that the oracle had commanded the death and Ikemefuna was supposed to die. But did the oracle appoint you to be the killer? Obierika asks Okonkwo.

It’s a fine argument that can be used to fight practices like fisi, kupita kufa and chokolo, not the non-artistic ways NGOs are using. Some NGOs have mastered antagonising some cultural practices instead of working on the minds of those whop promotte the culures the way Obierika worked on Okonkwo.

“To a large extent, Western societies have changed because of literature,” says Joya. “Laws have changed because of literature or fiction.”

This is so because fiction has power. In fact, the whole world has changed because of fiction, a reflection of reality. Joya argues that Jesus, believed to be the son of God, used fiction to teach effectively. The parables are fiction, says Joya, and billions know the parable of the Good Samaritan, a powerful story that teaches love.

No wonder, Jon McCain loves a fiction character. No wonder former president Moi sent Kenyan police to arrest Matigari, a character in a novel, on the streets of Nairobi. This speaks a lot that fiction is not fiction at all. It is another dimension of reality.

1 comment:

Lameck said...

I didnt know you Mzati are hiding here. Good writing.