Ernest Hemingway once wrote, clearly embittered after a bad interview with the New Yorker: “If you say nothing it is difficult for someone to get it wrong.” And saying nothing is exactly what we should do – in writing, but not in interviews.
I was recently interviewed by the kinkily titled Rum Punch Press about a story of mine they published on their website, Aleppo’s Lament, and post-interview I found the shadow of a new realisation hiding in the jungle of my own words. As if my words were somehow independent of me. As Kundera said in one of his gold-mine novels: “her entire life was a mere continuation of her mother’s, much as the course a ball on the billiard table is the continuation of the player’s arm movement.” My words seemed to have taken on their own independence in just such a way.
In the interview (which you can read here) I talk about the state of Syria and Aleppo, as I do in my story. When I first wrote the story, which deals with a musician living in shelled-out Aleppo trying to stay sane and happy at the end of the world, I was a firm believer in a writer’s duty to be the accidental journalist. A moralist who tells fictional lies to expose the truth.
There’s a scene in the story where the musician tells a wounded young soldier who’s defected: “I can’t shoot you. You’re a child! Besides, I’m not with the Syrian Army. I don’t care!”
And if a man who’s had his whole family killed by the war doesn’t care, then how dare I care?
How can I, a writer who’s never seen a war, never been to Syria, or seen such holocaust-violence claim to know what it’s all about? Shouldn’t I stick to the things I know?
In my interview I go on to say:
“But there is one thing that worries me: I worry that Aleppo might become pigeon-holed by the war. That, for years to come all the art coming out of Aleppo, or even concerning Aleppo will be fatalistic, destructive, obsessed by images of death and the verse of chaos.”
And that is true, I now realise, of all art and literature. Aren’t we all becoming too fatalistic, too war-hungry, too, for lack of a more ironic word, Syrious?
Put it this way, and call me naïve by any means: if a Syrian refugee arrives on, say, a Grecian shore, or our own Maltese shore, what would he want to greet him: a caring arm around the shoulder and a shoulder to cry on, or someone who tells him, you’ve been through hell, let’s go live a little!
Empathy demands you put yourself in another’s shoes, but it doesn’t take into consideration where those shoes want to take their wearers. To know what another feels is one thing, to know another’s desire is a separate solar system. I can’t know what a young man who’s lost his entire family truly wants, nor needs, and to pretend I do would be an emasculating insult. I can’t even do it in fiction. That is, I can’t lie about it, because I don’t know enough truths with which to arm my lie.
But re-reading the story I find snippets I can be proud of. This isn’t a Syrious story though it is set in Syria. This is a story about a man that “ played violin in the music garden”, and of “birds in elaborate cages” that sang “like wounded angels.” And of course, there is the silhouette of empathy too, the hint of hope drenched in blood, the hope of “bloody footsteps leading into the rubble and beyond, stopping where the sun sets shadows over the shelled street.”
In the next stories that I publish, Syrious things will be in the background, manipulating, but subdued by a foreground full of dangerous good stuff, the things dying men would kill for!
All that from saying something rather than nothing.