Dedicated authors of fiction are story whores. We’re all questing fools who search for truths like gold-hunters scanning tracts of sand with make-believe metal-detectors.
Once a truth is glimpsed, we pounce on it, pocket it and then shape it to fit into our dreams and schemes. It’s this kind of fossicking and finding that keeps most of us addicted to storytelling. It’s also what makes us all incidental thieves.
No story is ours to tell, and yet the courage it takes to tell a story that doesn’t belong to us is a superpower that can change the world, or at least touch the soul of a reader or two. But it’s a power that comes with some heavy responsibilities.
Authors should perhaps, like doctors, take some kind of oath to help and do no harm – unless it’s necessary to, for example, slaughter a few sacred cows in the telling of truth to power. Of course, we’re going to make all sorts of mistakes in the process of suturing facts into fiction. Storytelling is a skill learned on the job, and we never stop learning. There’s a line in my first novel that clangs in my head as gutless and naïve, and will for all time, but I wrote it fifteen years ago, when I was rather more gutless and naïve, so I let it stand as it is, to remind me of my own unflattering truths.
I understand, deeply, viscerally, that authors’ first works are tender creatures; and as editor, over the last twenty-odd years, I’ve touched and prodded the rawness and soreness of all kinds of virgin-storytelling bravery with great care, learning all the time there, too.
These understandings have made me very cautious about openly criticising the work of others. My taste, my preferences, and my reactions to a text are small beans and largely irrelevant in the face of whatever it is the author is attempting to achieve with their own longings and leanings.
But there’s one recent debut that has challenged my resolve to keep my opinions to myself, and that is The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the blockbusting sales juggernaut that tells of a Holocaust survival and concentration camp romance. I’m not about to review the book here – there are literally thousands of reviews out there in bookchatting land, and most of them are effusively in favour of the work. If you’ve enjoyed the story, and been inspired to higher thoughts because of it, good for you – and let no-one take that from you.
My problem with the novel stems from what I see as an abuse of the power of storytelling, a betrayal of truthy trust. I have no way of knowing how this has come about: whether it lie in decisions made by author or publisher or sales maven. But come about it certainly has.
Emblazoned across every copy of the Tattooist are the words, ‘Based on an incredible true story’, and in speaking about it, the author has presented the work as ’95 percent fact’, a story recorded word for word from the real-life protagonist, declaring her own research to have been thorough and extensive, such that many readers believe that what they are reading is a true story in virtually every sense. Indeed, in one Australian readers’ forum, the review categories on the book were spilt between ‘historical fiction’ and ‘history’, illustrating the confusion starkly.
It would be reasonable to say that readers respond to ‘true stories’ in a slightly different way than they do fiction. When we know something is fictional, we understand that facts are being craftily assembled to lead us to deeper truths; we let the story play with our emotions and imaginations. When we believe we’re being told a true story, we tend to let that story go straight to the heart – we let the facts hit us unfiltered. In this way, true stories are often going to move us more profoundly, where we embrace the chance to walk with a real person as they endure their experiences, sympathising with them every step of the way.
It doesn’t matter who the writer is. I’ve ghostwritten a not wholly dissimilar true story of war, imprisonment and escape myself (from a combatant’s point of view), disappearing behind the real person as I helped him tell his extraordinary tale on the page. I’ve felt the dread of getting it wrong, the weight of care in trying to get it just right, picking over each word, checking each fact, in the knowledge that memory, decades on, is faulty. This can be especially true where great trauma has been experienced in the original storyteller: to protect ourselves, to cope, we meld some recollections into manageable clumps and scatter others. Some things can’t be spoken about at all, no matter how robust the teller might seem: there will be no-go zones, areas so painful they will remain in a locked box in the furthest corner of the brain forever. For my soldier, that area tended to be the experiences of his comrades, and of his wife when he returned: he was so protective of them, even sixty years later, he would give me only the barest and most benign sketches. The author of the Tattooist has been said to have been a social worker in real life herself, so she might then know these quirks of the mind more keenly than I would, but she has not, to my knowledge, outlined how she has addressed them in her book, only repeating that the story came straight from the mouth of her subject.
Despite the author’s and publishers’ claims, however, the Tattooist is not very exactly a true story. It is riddled with errors: from the pernickety oops of placing a town in Slovakia near the border of Romania, forgetting that Hungary sits between the two countries; to a growing objection over multiple discrepancies of fact and implausibilities from venerable sources, such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and relatives of the real people named in the Tattooist (as well as the just-released sequel, Cilka’s Journey).
But rather than stepping away from their claims of high truth, the author and at least one of the publishers have dug in with the bizarre defence that the story is both 95 percent true to the real lives involved and fiction at the same time. How can this nonsense be conscionable?
If the author had wanted to take some licence with the trauma of others (and haven’t we all), why use the real names of survivors? It’s particularly disturbing that this author’s most stunning and affecting confections appear to involve the rape of women in the camps. Maybe my moral compass is wobbly but it’s probably disrespectful to make shit up about another person’s experience of sexual torture – even a little bit. And when the victim of that torture is dead and therefore unable to object or defend her privacy, it makes the twisting of the truth even worse. No matter how much research you’ve done (which the silly old Holocaust museums and historians just happen to have overlooked), you can’t buy a ticket to do that. Not in my book, anyway.
There are other problems with this book, or books (a third is reportedly planned), not least of which is the perversity of using the Holocaust as so much fodder for romance – and so successfully it appears to have spawned its own sub-genre if the present rush to publish Holocaust romance is anything to go by. Yes, there are many amazing stories of survival to be plundered from such a vast crime against humanity, but it’s those who did not survive who must sit at the forever-wounded centre of any true story of the Holocaust. Survival did not depend on pluckiness or prettiness; it was luck. Cruel, stupid luck.
My last word on this, though, is to my fellows in the storytelling business. If the Tattooist series had been set, say, in an African slave community in the American South, there’d be an outcry of concern and even anger at the appropriation and distortions of others’ pain – never mind the profits ka-chinged from this one. Yet, from the publishing industry and writing community generally, at least in Australia, I have only heard an unnerving silence. And, personally, I feel more than a little bit ashamed about that.
On a brighter note, readers searching for more authentic stories of the Holocaust can find a great selection here at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum bookstore.
Photograph of KZ Auschwitz: Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413 / Stanislaw Mucha / CC-BY-SA 3.0