The slippery slope of minor embellishments

No sooner had I written about the gaping void between fact and fiction, being strongly of the opinion you can’t just invent colourful details and retain the label nonfiction, than I came across an article by Thomas Meaney in the latest edition of the London Review of Books which covers the same topic.

The article is a review of Lea Ypi’s memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (Penguin) about her upbringing in Albania as the country emerged from 40 years under a repressive communist regime headed by Enver Hoxha. This sounded similar in content to two other books I read and very much enjoyed recently, Stasiland by Anna Funder, and Border by Kapka Kassabova, so I guessed I ought to be adding to my To Read list.

Ypi’s book opens with a charming detail. As Meaney explains:

‘I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin,’ Ypi writes in the opening line of Free. She describes herself, aged eleven, as an ardent young Pioneer who loves her country and worships ‘Uncle Enver’. On a rainy day in December 1990 she had run to the statue of Stalin to hide from a band of hooligans wreaking havoc in the wake of the state’s collapse, only to find her idol defiled, his head broken off.

A great, symbolic anecdote with which to open a book. But Meaney’s review goes on to explain the reception of the book in Albania:

The opening image of Ypi hugging the statue of Stalin came in for particular scrutiny. There was no large statue of Stalin in Durrës in 1990: there was only a small bust, and it was never decapitated. Ypi responded by mocking her Albanian fact-checkers’ tiresome adherence to the ‘correspondence theory of truth’, and directed them to Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Excavation and Memory’, where Benjamin argues that genuine memory yields an image of the person who remembers rather than simply cataloguing events.

I’m genuinely fascinated by the phenomenon of unreliable memory, which we all experience whether we realise it or not. But to mock the idea that what is claimed to be true must reflect what is real—in other words, in this case, what actually happened—strikes me as philosophical smoke-screening. And to cite a 90-year-old single-paragraph posthumously published essay which makes the interesting point that memories are—and need to be—explored and developed, rather than simply recalled, seems an academic diversionary tactic.

How does Ypi actually defend the charge of having made up this colourful anecdote? Her reported response doesn’t dispute the claim that the decapitated statue she described as real never actually existed. Is she instead maintaining that this seemingly fictional statue—a metaphorical statue, perhaps—reflects some different kind of truth?

Interestingly, as Meaney’s review goes on to explain:

It’s true that the protocols of Anglo creative non-fiction have struggled to find a footing in Europe, where there is no established genre of non-fiction, much less ‘creative non-fiction’. (In German, nicht-fiktionale Literatur is a very recent Anglicism. Outside of history and memoirs, there is no common term for ‘non-fiction’, only Sachbücher, ‘books about things’.) In Albania, Ypi’s memoir was marketed as a novel.

Like all categorisation, classifying book genres is fraught with difficulties. I’ve previously written about nature writing’s ill-defined, thriving ecosystem. I was intrigued to learn the ‘non-fiction’ genre—I continue to prefer the term ‘factual’—seems to be mainly limited to the English-speaking world. But clearly Ypi’s scrutinous Albanian fact-checkers were of the opinion her book was supposed to be a factual memoir, despite its local classification as a novel.

Meaney argues there are times when artistic licence allows factual writers a bit of leeway, when ‘it’s neither here nor there whether’ certain minor details are true or not, but that ‘different standards govern political memoirs that make claims about wider public experience’. He goes on to say:

The problem with some of Ypi’s scenes isn’t really about memory or truth—whether or not her Stalin statue had a thigh for her to press her cheek against. It’s about whether she may have submitted a bit too readily to Anglo-American publishing imperatives that want stories of far-off places served with a spoonful of kitsch. […] Ypi’s apparent over-compliance with certain narrative expectations makes one wonder if she has oversimplified other aspects of her passage through 1990s Albania.

I think it’s wrong to blame ‘narrative expectations’ for the sexing up of a supposedly factual account. I also think it’s wrong to hold different types of factual writing to different standards, and am less relaxed than Meaney when it comes to minor embellishments. Slippery-slope arguments irritate the hell out of me, but it seems to me, once we allow some artistic licence regarding apparently inconsequential details into what is supposed to be factual writing, we open a dangerous can of worms.

Ypi’s memoir has been widely praised internationally, being shortlisted for and even winning a number of prestigious awards. It was also listed among the books of the year by several newspapers. It still sounds like the sort of book I would very much have enjoyed reading. But now I know it passes off certain details as facts when they are no such thing, I don’t think I’ll be reading it: I know I would have continuous nagging doubts, never knowing which details it describes are real, and which are artistic embellishments.

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *