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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

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Identity that is veiled

Gabriel Garcia Marquez recently won a landmark judgment. His novella ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’ is alleged to have been based on a living character and a living account. ‘Márquez's book tells the story of Bayardo San Román, a wealthy Colombian who Palencia said was modelled on him,’ so states Guardian, which reported the judgment. The Colombian must have aimed at a heavy wad of cash, it is hinted as the report progresses. But he has lost the case, as the verdict ruled the work is original.

The ruling in favour of Marquez indicates that the creative writer can have influence from what happens in his environs.

Marquez doesn’t enjoy any popularity or publicity like R K Narayan in Sri Lanka. He seems quite alien to the local circles. Those who go to town on Latin American fiction, I have a definite feeling, have not grasped Marquez properly. Well, I haven’t either! I have no wish to explain any Marquez theory here.

But the Guardian story, which was sent by a senior friend, provoked me to be lost in thoughts. Naturally when most writers pen something, mostly a novel, chances are more that readers take it to be a real-life experience. They try to link the story, at least tidbits, with the author’s life. It has happened, and even now I happen to hear such stories on grapevine.

This is why, I presume, most writers dread using their real names.

There are people who write about real life. You call it a memoir especially when a celebrity writes it. Is writing the real life easy? The answer must be a split one. For those who entertain skeletons in their cupboards, it will be half memoir, half fiction. So what? A reader won't care if it is true, at times. If it is a hagiography, it will mostly consist of true incidents of spiritual adventures and struggles. So yes, the answer is split: half yes and half no.

One question I had when I read ‘Road from Elephant Pass’ years back was if the author was a soldier himself. I soldiered on with the dilemma until I met its author Nihal de Silva one fine day at the launch of the book. He burst into laughter when I posed him that question, and was firm in his ‘no’. Later on I felt how silly it was for having had such a question. Does a novelist always have to be familiar with the setting of the novel? In Sri Lanka you got to be, though. Otherwise most critics will take on you for writing unfamiliar stuff.

D R Wijewardene memorial award is the Gratiaen for unpublished Sinhala novelists. I remember the situation when one book was finally given the cash award. It was heavily criticized mainly because critics and the runners-up claimed the novelist is not familiar with what he has written. The novel is based on Jaffna. Makes sense, somewhat. It’s hard to write about a distant hemisphere.

George Bernard Shaw once had a letter from a soldier in the battlefront. The soldier had ridiculed the Irish playwright saying he has no experience at the battlefront, and questioned how he managed to write such naïve accounts. You have that disadvantage, when you are in the creative writing: you are not familiar with everything under the sun. The soldier has more battle experience than Shaw but he cannot write. It’s the paradox inevitable.

This kind of problems does not arise in works historical fiction. No one knows how Julius Caesar dined. Everybody has to bank on what is written down scrolls. And we are pretty sure any writer has their own bit of pure imagination. Of course we have a good driver’s license: figures of speech – and ‘exaggeration’ is a good tool.

So, most writers hide their identity. They have to, in fact. There are cases like that of Marquez. You cannot write about people you know. They won’t be offended to read about themselves, if the author is someone else. So the best option is to opt out your real identity. Be a ghost to your own writing!

This is not ghostwriting, which is something else. But no one prosecutes you for seeing some connection in the concept.

Why we tend to link real life incidents with the novel is because it has real life! Imagination can do wonders. That is why people throng around works of art. No artiste who has sculpted or painted the Buddha or Christ has ever seen the religious founders. It is the offshoot of brilliant imagination.

And we are fond of being taken for a ride.

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