Friday, January 11, 2013

Stranger Than Fiction

I write historical fiction, to a large degree, to fill in the blanks, by which I mean to portray the many aspects of life in my particular time and place—sixteenth-century Russia—that we can only imagine based on our own experience, because sources that would contain that information are not (and often have never been) available. Those impenetrable elements of life happen to be the very things that interest people most, the things that make us human. How did it feel to be a teenage girl married off to a stranger to fulfill the political agenda of your parents? How does a woman cope with seeing half of her children—or all her children—die before the age of five? Suppose your gifts lie in painting icons, but your class and your gender require you to spend your life attacking your fellow man with sword and pike, lest he attack and kill you first? What did the past look like, sound like, smell like?

Answering these questions demands that a novelist supply historically accurate, or at least historically plausible, details that turn the dry recitation of facts into a story. Then, by creating recognizably human characters and sending them on a journey—even a journey that no one living today expects to undertake—the novelist gives that story meaning and life. Skilled fingers pluck the strings of history and make them sing.

The process is not perfect. By applying imagination, we inevitably distort the historical record—how much depends on the writer. At the same time, by exploring the emotions that drive any series of events and by looking at those events from different (but specific) perspectives, a good historical novelist can let the past unfold before the reader’s eyes, make it more accessible than a purely factual account. Although fancy does not supplant fact, well-conceived, well-written fancy can reveal a truth that simple facts obscure.

But what happens when history, in effect, subsumes fiction and twists storytelling to serve its own ends? One example of such an overlap between fact and fiction can be seen in the Moscow show trials of 1936–38.

In 1936, Joseph Stalin decided to eliminate any communist leader with sufficient prestige to threaten his monopoly on power. In what became known as the Great Terror, he instigated a series of show trials, with scripts written by his political police and entirely false charges, designed to cover up the mistakes of his forced industrialization and collectivization drives by blaming his rivals—especially his arch-rival, Leon Trotsky, by then in exile from the USSR.

The first trial succeeded in terms of Stalin’s larger goal: the political police forced the defendants to cooperate, confessing their “crimes” in open court. Convicted of plotting against Stalin, the leaders were promptly shot. The purges rippled out from the center, sweeping up hundreds of thousands of mid-level bureaucrats and intellectuals throughout the Soviet Union.

But the international community remained skeptical of trials that relied solely on confessions. So for the next show trial, held in 1937, Stalin’s police selected five witnesses to corroborate the faked charges against a new group of defendants. This month on New Books in Historical Fiction I talk with Julius (Jay) Wachtel, whose novel Stalin’s Witnesses (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2012) explores the identity, careers, and psychology of these five men—and especially of Vladimir Romm, a journalist, diplomat, and Soviet spy who served in Washington, DC, immediately before his recall and arrest in August 1936. Jay asks probing questions about the system that produced the show trials; the many small compromises that ordinary people, including his five witnesses, made with their consciences; and the means by which those compromises turned history into a fantastical theatrical performance.

Listen to it. Read the book. If you do, the next time someone tells you that truth is stranger than fiction, you won’t hesitate to admit that they’re right.

The description of Jay Wachtel's book draws in part on my blog post introducing Stalin's Witnesses, published by New Books in Historical Fiction.

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