The idea of history in fiction has always perhaps been there. Many times, fiction is merely the account noted from invented resources. However, the question of history in fiction, and fiction in history is perhaps a matter to be explored, and Supriya Chaudhuri, Mukul Kesavan and Amitav Ghosh made the talk rather lively, moderated by Jayanta Sengupta.
When asked about the question of history and the historical novel, the problem created by Leo Tolstoy came up. Through his work War and Peace Tolstoy had created a ‘reality’ which was far from the ‘unreal’ truth. Indeed, according to Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, Tolstoy had been doing this very thing.
“Throughout the 1850s Tolstoy was obsessed by the desire to write a historical novel, one of his principal aims being to contrast the ‘real’ texture of life, both of individuals and communities, with the ‘unreal’ picture presented by historians. Again and again in the pages of War and Peace we get a sharp juxtaposition of ‘reality’ – what ‘really’ occurred – with the distorting medium through which it will later be presented in the official accounts offered to the public, and indeed be recollected by the actors themselves – the original memories having now been touched up by their own treacherous (inevitably treacherous because automatically rationalising and formalising) minds. Tolstoy is perpetually placing the heroes of War and Peace in situations where this becomes particularly evident.”
(From the article by Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox, published in 1953).
Keeping that premise in mind, there is a difference between ‘truth’ and ‘reality’, where truth might always not be what is real. Here, real is evidence-based factors, for example, the history as we know it. “Virtually all novels are of topics which deal with the past”, said Amitav Ghosh (here I shall disagree, for then, where shall sci-fi go?), and many times, people talk about the reality which they face, and therefore, a book like Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be vividly descriptive, yet somewhat abstract, because their ‘truth’ is so far away from our ‘reality’, Mukul Kesavan exclaimed upon the tone and beauty of the language with which Morrison wrote her text, and the subject of suppression of the ‘lesser voices’ by the traditional history books was brought up. Supriya Chaudhuri talked about the need of some authors to ‘justify’ a novel with the presence of a real, historic figure, and how that adds to the ‘validity’ of the story. She further commented on the lack of them in Amitav Ghosh’s work, and the ability of the author to weave in facts and fiction seamlessly.
The talk was a rather wonderful one, and this is just the start. There will be more riveting events at Kolkata Literary Meet, 2016 and to get the complete schedule check out the website, or follow hashtags #TataSteelKalam and #KolLitMeet.
Disclaimer: Poorna Banerjee is blogging in association with Kolkata Literary Meet, 2016.