Truths Stranger Than Fiction
Lionel Shriver’s new novel brilliantly describes the problems of on-the-spot reportage, a journalistic difficulty negotiated deftly in two recent books about The Troubles
It is the late 1990s, and Lionel Shriver’s tyro journalist, Edgar Kellogg, is sent to southern Portugal, to the (fictional) province of Barba, which along with “Bosnia, Angola, Algeria, and Azerbaijan” was one of the “too-complicated and who-gives-a-fuck shit holes” about which he normally avoided reading.
Barba is of interest to the world solely because of various atrocities claimed by its “sorry-ass crackpots”, the Soldastsies Ozhatsies (aka the SOBs), and justified by their political wing, “O Crème de Barbear” (aka the Creamies), who are demanding independence. Barba is an amusingly disguised Northern Ireland, where, in the 1980s, Shriver and I became good friends, not least because of our pleasure in discovering that — despite our different backgrounds (American ex-Presbyterian and southern Irish ex-Catholic) — neither of us was taken in by terrorist apologetics. We despised Provo propaganda, which, like that of the Creamies, was “incessant, it never varies except in decibel level, and subjection to enough of it turns you into a moron,” and Gerry Adams, whose Creamie equivalent, Tomás Verdade, is a “stultifying…verbose demagogue”, who “without wink-wink paramilitary connections” is “a no-account leader of a third-string political party in the back of beyond”.
As her nearest and dearest know all too well, there is no escaping the gimlet that is the often misanthropic eye of Lionel Shriver: being family, lover, friend or colleague offers no sanctuary. So, though some of her best friends are journalists, anyone who has ever been part of “a core hack pack” in a strange place hoping guiltily for something to happen will find plenty to squirm at here. They are dependent on “a steady stream of visiting journalists whom regulars could show up, lure capriciously to bed, ply slyly with their first Choques [disgusting local beer], and poke fun at once they left”. These newcomers “varied in their political predispositions, from burn-’em-at-the-stake authoritarians to liberal hankie-twisters frantic to understand, but their ignorance was universal”. Panic sets in when a drought of SOB operations threatens: “Reuters just emailed that they’ll close the bureau in three months if nothing blows up.”
Shriver describes thus the problems of on-the-spot reportage: “One mustachioed hothead stuttered in a mix of English and Portuguese that over a hundred illegal immigrants had been rounded up for deportation that afternoon. His friend asserted that the numbers were much higher — two hundred, three! A third claimed that five Moroccans had been killed, while his companion said more like twelve; the number of officers in the Brigada Encarnada slain in retaliation numbered either zero, three, or twenty-seven. Great. More ‘eyewitnesses’.”
It was that passage that reminded me so forcibly of two recent and outstanding non-fiction books on Northern Ireland. In Bloody Sunday (longlisted for the Orwell Prize), Douglas Murray (another close friend), who attended much of the Saville Inquiry and has read all its findings, lays bare how sceptical we must be about memory, how prevalent is myth and how many questions are still unanswered even after Saville. In a book distinguished as much by unflinching honesty as well as empathy, his most disconcerting and yet touching story concerns Barney McGuigan, an innocent victim of a Para murderer, whose eyelid, it was claimed by many, was unstuck from a wall and placed in a matchbox. “Some claimed to have taken the eyelid down themselves. Others claimed that they were with the person who did but name different people . . . No two stories match and if you named all the number of people who claimed to have been the person to have been with the person who did this small act, the list would run to more than twenty.
“Were any of these people wrong? Certainly. Possibly all of them. But were they lying? Almost certainly not. They were saying what they remembered.”
Equally startling is how — in Belfast and Derry in Revolt — Simon Prince and Geoffrey Warner overturn the myth that the Troubles have been over-researched by showing how little we really know about their origins. They draw upon previously unexamined primary sources including police reports, army files, intelligence summaries, parish chronicles and local newspapers to demonstrate the importance of accident and malcommunication as well as design in bringing into being decades of bloodshed almost no one wanted. I was surprised to find that the Trotskyite street agitator and proponent of global revolt Eamonn McCann, a popular pundit these days, and Ian Paisley, now garlanded with laurels as a peacemaker, emerge from this book as even more morally culpable of encouraging the descent into violence than their enemies could have imagined.
Here, courtesy of a court report from the Londonderry Sentinel in December 1968, comes this simple example of what Price and Warner classify as “false memory”: “A policeman gave evidence that at the beginning of the [October] march he had heard Ivan Cooper [anti-violence, anti-sectarian, civil rights campaigner] shout ‘For God’s sake stewards, come to the front.’ When Cooper took to the stand, however, he said that the marshals had been called to the head of the march by someone else . . . that the protest had been ‘non-violent’ and that there had ‘not been physical contact with the police’. McCann, though, told the court that ‘there was physical contact between the marchers at the front and the police.’ The Troubles was being misremembered almost from the moment it had begun.”
Like the Northern Irish, Shriver’s Barbars “fall in love with the idea of themselves as dangerous” and enjoy the rewards. “Each of the government’s denunciatory rhetorical salvos at O Crème . . . heralded another package of ‘confidence-building’ measures — known in the Barban vernacular as ‘Creamie-pleasers’.”
They prosper from the visitors: “Journos, EU functionaries, grovelling governmental delegations from Lisbon, academics on conflict-resolution junkets, kibbitzing Congressmen on fact-finding missions, Amnesty International busybodies” and so on. Shriver’s central characters are unappealing, but her Barba is a fine creation. Like all good satirists, she performs a vital function in complementing the journalists and historians by nailing central, uncomfortable truths.