Mixing History & Fiction: Advantages & Dangers

Symbols in Formaldehyde: On the Advantages and Dangers of Mixing History and Fiction

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but a good portion of the dissertation I submitted to my history department this May was fictional. I remember reading Foucault’s work on the birth of the prison as an undergrad, and wanting to apply it to something or someone. Then, when I started my MA, I found a penal colony in Panamá, and I thought, hm, that has a nice ring to it, Foucault in Panamá. As I found out, in the Panamanian case, scientific knowledge was seen as the basis of the penal system, and there too committees and experts wrote reports that fine-tuned the prison. I may as well have deduced it from Foucault – knowledge in the Panamanian case, including critique, did not limit power, but actually reinforced it, forming a kind of knowledge/power matrix.

But what bothered me was that, if it turned out to be true, as Foucault had argued, that knowledge about the penal colony only reinforced it, then…what of Foucault’s own critique? Didn’t Foucault’s critique of the prison join the occasional reports, the criminological research, and the rest of the texts that – according to Foucault himself – only reinforced the penitentiary? I began to look for a way out of this circle; a way of writing what couldn’t in any straightforward way contribute to the penitentiary or fine-tune the field of knowledge that directed it.

I admit that the solution I found might seem to have made the problem worse. And actually– but no, well, pardon the digression, but I have to confess that the real reason I chose this way of writing may sound odd. After two months of subletting an apartment in Panama City, I noticed a big jar someone had left under the sink. It was covered with a little rag, but I could see the bottom of the jar sticking out. After looking at it every day for about a week, I finally gave up and uncovered the thing. The light smell of formaldehyde stung me through the closed jar, and the image: a baby tarantula, olive-black, floating in a universe it can never see. I quickly covered the jar again, and left the city two weeks later, but that smell stayed with me. Everywhere I looked, I now saw eight tired eyes, and I knew it was like all clichés – tired, wanting to be left alone, an apathetic historical symbol.

When I developed my dissertation a couple of years later, I began to think that you can’t understand the endurance of any power relation without taking apart the symbols, clichés, and formal interpretative schemes that underwrite it. And that this issue relates to larger questions lingering in the humanities since the beginning of the linguistic turn. And yet, in the historiography, at least, the issue seems to be dead.

Up until, say, the 1960s, when you opened a history book, you would most likely meet an omniscient narrator who told you a story about Great Men. Then, historians began to look at other protagonists and themes that had earlier been “left out of history.” But simultaneously, and without a sense of the paradox, these same historians began to see history as a set of scientific, empirically verifiable arguments, rather than a narrative about the human past. Sometime in the 1980s, as part of the linguistic turn in the human sciences, a group of historians began to experiment again with narrative history – but now with new questions about subjectivity, voice, historical agency and narrative structure. Many of the writers of this newer narrative history weren’t especially radical. They simply thought that history was no science, and wanted academic works to regain some of their charm; perhaps to reach a wider audience too. Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, the most experimental (and one of the most successful) works of this group, went as far as to imaginatively reconstruct a few historical scenes. Schama based his work on archival research, and he was quite timid in his use of formal tools, but even so he claimed that his book was not history but a work of the imagination. Still, it was extremely controversial.

So in some senses, my eccentric solution to the power/knowledge problem should not be completely surprising. But my work goes much further in its exploration of formal problems than other narrative histories. In my dissertation, the reader encounters a fictional plot: four prisoners on the penal colony on the Island of Coiba in the 1980s are ordered to write the history of the prison in which they’re confined. Ideological and methodological divisions prevent the prisoners – some of whom are political prisoners – from delivering their report’s first chapters. Afraid of the consequences of failure, the members create a machine, the Singer, to synthetize archival documents for them and produce a scientific, objective history. Through the debates between the fictional characters, a picture of the penal colony’s first years (1919-1940) begins to emerge. And because the debates are never quite resolved, the text remains ambiguous and problematic. There are layers that deal directly with the past, but always from a character’s perspective. And the debate about the past is ever present too, as are the ways in which this debate helps characters understand themselves, the frameworks of interpretation that characters are bound by, and so forth.

Historians occasionally write about metaphor and the importance of symbols in history; they utilize metaphors in their writing too, but not in a very sophisticated way. I use symbolic structures consciously and elaborately. For example, the second part of my work deals with the trial that followed the assassination of strongman José Antonio Remón in 1955. Neither the slain President Remón nor any of those standing trial for his murder were especially popular. The judicial system, like the legislature and the police, enjoyed absolutely no confidence. So why did common Panamanians care so much about the three-year trial? Why, during its last sessions, was the entire country practically shut down, and why did people go dancing in the streets after the acquittal of all the defendants? In my text, one of the (fictional) prisoners, already free and back in Panama City in the 1990s, begins to write a series of articles about the Remón period. He cannot understand why his wife is distraught over their teenager daughter’s participation in a university play, and his daughter cannot figure out why people who talk of liberty interfere with her rights. (The mother knows that the play is an adaptation of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman – a work that involves two prisoners, “one of them, with visible signs of torture,” recalling old films to pass time. Her fear, that her husband will relive the trauma of his imprisonment, is mixed with concerns about the sexual themes her daughter will enact.)

In juxtaposing content and interpretative frameworks, I borrow some of the techniques of Latin American prose writers like Manuel Puig and Roberto Bolaño. The (historical) narrative of the trials of 1955-58 gains different meanings when juxtaposed with the (fictional) story of the Del Valle family. Where possible, I show the ways in which people understand real contemporary events against interpretative frameworks that are often borrowed from other historical contexts, and also from fictional and mythical worlds. For example, the trials closing the remonato were reported on the first pages of the newspapers of the period. On the third and fourth pages of the same newspapers appeared Dick Tracy in Spanish. I found a few cases in which the newspaper depicted the historical narrative discussed in the trials in cartoon form. While no simple conclusions can be drawn from this, I think it’s worthwhile to consider how these different frameworks interacted in the minds of Panamanians of the era. To the extent that I have been successful, the fictional layers I have woven into my work allow the reader to feel how a juxtaposition of interpretative frameworks actually operates. For example, the reader may come to sympathize with two characters who hold opposing views on any one historical issue. In such a case, my reader may find that it is possible to hold a view of a historical process that is contradictory and, moreover, that being conscious of this contradiction makes for a more complex, nuanced, and humble understanding of history.

It should be clear by now that I am challenging not only historians, but also a broader readership in the humanities, and literary criticism in particular. While concentrating their analytical tools on taking apart the formal aspects of prose, literary critics very rarely stress the ways in which the formal aspects in their own writing are significant. Even when contemporary filmmakers, visual artists and novelists have explored the lines that separate fiction from reality in wonderful experimental pieces, literary critics remain for the most part conservative in this regard. I don’t exactly know what a discussion of Roberto Bolaño’s novels would look like if the critic chose to speak Bolañese. Would such a narrator pause the critique, go down into Pio Baroja’s chasm, and come out with a woman who has been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents in order to explain the significance of the web in Puig? I don’t know. But as far as can tell, the spider that was planted in the first scene is still stuck there, sunk in formaldehyde and waiting for someone to give it life or final death.

Ezer Vierba
Program in History and Literature
Harvard University

Image: Picture of a cell in the penitentiary on the Island of Coiba (photograph by author).

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