Impossible Tales

by Andrew Crumey

From Music, in a Foreign Language (1994)


"The rewriting of history is not a purely modern preoccupation. Indeed, one could argue that history itself is little more than an accumulation of alterations and amendments; the endless recreating of the past. We need only consider the subtlety of the immediate present, and the infinite malleability of our own perceptions, to realise that the past is a thing without substance, without meaning, unless it is interpreted. And to interpret is to rewrite."

It is no accident that I chose Duncan to be reading a story by Alfredo Galli - the author of the preceding paragraph. The tale of the cafe waiter, I confess at once, was my own invention; my tribute to a writer I have always admired (though attentive readers may have noticed that the motif of the mysterious girl on the bus has its origin in the anecdote of Lucia and the engineer in Il Furto). However, this act of simultaneous plagiarism and distortion on my part would not, I think, have offended the Sicilian who once said that the evolutionary advantage offered by the acquisition of language lies in the ability to deceive.

But how are we to respond to the assertion that history is "no more than an accumulation of alterations and amendments"? Does this not contradict our own experience; the certainty of our own memory?

I am reminded of the case of F., reported in Lowell's fascinating study Minds and Memories. F., a man in his thirties, was involved in an industrial accident which caused a blow to the head. For several days he was in a coma, and when he regained consciousness he asked to see his wife and children. In fact he was unmarried, but could give a detailed description to the doctors of his "phantom family", including birthdays, memories of things they had all done together, and so on. Therapy for F. had to begin with the destruction of the alternative reality which his injured brain had spontaneously created. Was this an act of cruelty on the part of the well intentioned psychologists who treated him?

For F., his own memory, the internal history of his own life, proved indeed to be "a thing without substance". And if a whole nation of people share the same fantasy, the same mythic past, then does this make it any more real, and any less of a fantasy? I remember a photograph in the Museum of the Working People, which showed a meeting of the Cabinet in the fifties. One of the faces seemed somehow different from the rest - that of the young Vernon Shaw. He seemed paler than the others; look more closely and you could see that the shadows on his features did not correspond with those on the other faces. The neck met the shirt collar at a disconcerting angle. Clearly, the face was superimposed on the body of another - presumably Herbert Lindsay - the alteration so blatant as to be laughable. But now the Museum of the Working People has itself been erased; the exhibits dispersed or destroyed, the name of the building changed on the maps, along with that of the street on which it stands. The place is now an exhibition hall. The last I heard, a display of Lego models was attracting huge crowds.

Do I regret the demise of the museum? Of course not. Do I rejoice in Lego models? Of course not. Old fantasies have simply been supplanted by new ones. History has been subjected to a further set of amendments and alterations.

Perhaps it is not even necessary to rewrite; one need only discard. Is it of any enduring interest to know whether the man at the Cabinet table was in fact Lindsay, rather than Shaw? And if we can decide with certainty that this was indeed the case, how does this affect our attitude to an exhibition of Lego models?

Such a view of things, the "Gallian" view, is of course not to everyone's taste. And Galli's writing, though I find it endlessly entertaining, leaves others cold. It is hardly surprising for example that Bachaud should have taken such exception to The Optical Illusion Last Friday; a novel which takes as its basic method the continual pointing out of inconsistencies within its own plot. For Bachaud the rationalist, Galli's apparent antirationalism is the symptom of a degeneration of cultural values; Galli's suicide the inevitable end of a talent marred by lack of discipline. How ironic, I always think, that Galli's academic training was in chemistry, while Bachaud's is in semiology.

And it was the spirit of anarchism which pervades every aspect of Galli's work, and which can be so endearing when it isn't downright irritating, which first attracted me when as a young man I discovered the delightful Racconti Impossibili - the set of "impossible tales" in which a description of a chair, for example, can gradually turn into an account of all the people who have sat upon it, and of all the other chairs on which they sat, and so on, in an endless process of multiplication which Galli cuts short with a comment such as "the rest is obvious". What Galli offers us in his writing is an escape from the tyranny of logic. In literature, everything is contingent; everything can be otherwise. To anyone who had grown up in Britain during the grim decades which followed the war, this fact was very seductive. I came to realize the simple truth that in the world, also, everything could have been otherwise - and the way things are is such a special case as to be almost irrelevant, compared with the full range of how things might be. Why then does history choose one course as opposed to another? This is something I have often thought about, while observing the evolution of women's fashion.

In Milan, where I have taught for the last twenty years, one has ample opportunity to conduct research of this kind. My late wife would be constantly complaining about the swing of my head as we passed another interesting sight; a girl in some particularly striking outfit. And I would reassure her that I was only considering the nature of history.

Twenty years ago, I remember watching a girl in a striking black and white outfit, her figure as thin as a pencil. She had a long white jacket with huge black discs for buttons. It was one of the first things I saw after I arrived, harassed and sweating at the train station in my thick grey suit, and it struck me that the girl's outfit made her look like some kind of circus clown. And I wondered if I had left one kind of circus and gone to another - though at the time, this new circus seemed far more appealing. That was twenty years ago. Ten years later, no woman would wear such an outfit as that of the pretty clown in the train station. What had happened in those intervening ten years? History had happened. Everyone had grown a little older; young girls had chosen to reject everything their mothers had told them, new styles had appeared and been preferred - why had they been preferred? Who knows; they were certainly no better than the old ones, only different. Another ten years on, and once again the clown can wear her costume with pride.

We can imagine a grand book; The History of Fashion. I'm sure such books exist already; the one that I imagine is big, heavy, glossy - the perfect "coffee table" book. It shows the evolution of costume - European costume, of course, with perhaps the occasional nod to other cultures. First there are drawings of primitive looking people in animal skins; a piece of whimsy designed to give the book an appearance of comprehensiveness. As we turn the pages we see mediaeval women with fantastic pointed hats and tiny waists, and the evolution of incredible hooped skirts. The bustle has its moment, and then is gone. Now we are in the early part of our own century, though still it is hard to imagine anyone ever wearing things such as these; it's like trying to picture dinosaurs crashing through ancient jungles. And so it goes on, each period up to the present day illustrated by its own style. But then the last page shows a hundred models in contemporary outfits, and beneath the picture runs a solemn caption: In today's ever changing world, we are at last free to choose, from the vast range of styles available, the one which best reflects our own personality. Of course, a hundred years from now, the successor to our book will illustrate with a single model the "style" of our age. And if we could show our book to the mediaeval woman in the pointed hat, she might be perplexed at the unrepresentative choice we have made from her own rich culture.

Is the history of nations any different from the history of fashion? An ideology emerges, it sweeps across nations; it kills millions. And then its moment is over. Like the dinosaurs, it has simply gone out of fashion.

Where does it come from, this unstoppable force of change? Do the women of the world slavishly follow the whims of a handful of dress designers, or are the successful designers simply those with an eye for the "look" of the age? Can an ideology be imposed on a nation of unwilling, uncooperative innocents, or must it be a reflection of something - some twisted parody of the collective spirit?

And can one call a halt to the process? For forty years a nation puts itself into the deep freeze of Communism; history is declared to have ended. There is no change; from one year to the next we drive the same car, wear the same badly made clothes, read the same books - or different versions of the same books. Even the price of a pint of beer remains for thirty years at the same fixed level. Then suddenly the freezer door is opened and burning coals are being thrown inside. And suddenly we see that everything which we thought had meaning was in fact an illusion. We see that power and fear are things which come in many varieties, and some varieties can simply go out of fashion. Was this all an act of kindness on the part of those who shovel in the coals?

I think again of F., and the details which Lowell gives us from the two lives of that unfortunate man. In reality he was, as I mentioned, an industrial worker in his thirties. A single man, rather solitary, who had few friends. In the period after his awakening from the coma, he spoke lovingly of his wife Nancy, a woman who worked part time in a grocer's shop, and whom he had first met some fifteen years earlier at a dance - a meeting that occurred by one of those strange, happy coincidences, when he and a friend went there because the cinema was already full. After courting Nancy for several months, she agreed to marry him, and over the years they had a son and a daughter. All of this, the psychologists would have to disprove. They would have to persuade F. that there was no dance, no Nancy, no fifteen years of marriage. Which would be the greater horror; to be told that your wife and children were dead, or to be told that they had never existed?

And should we tell Duncan that his father was not, in fact, the heroic dissident whom he imagines him to be? Should we spare him the endless rewriting of that scene, in which he imagines his father to have been killed by the secret police? Should we even tell him that his father was not, in fact, killed at all? But then, as Galli would have said, what profit would there be in that?

They took away the Museum of the Working People and all its exhibits. Not only the photographs of the politicians; there were all those union banners, and the uniformed mannequins in glass cases, and all those paintings of strong faced men and women meeting their production quotas, and there were all the different kinds of miners' helmets, and the display cases full of badges. But it was all an illusion; the banners, the badges, the glass cases. It was all a mere photograph, cut out and superimposed on another mere photograph. And now there is an exhibition of Lego models.

For years, a nation lives in fear of itself, an imaginary economy is constructed in which debt and inefficiency is passed from one place to the next in an endless game - everything is decided by faceless committees in a way that is arbitrary, inexplicable, meaningless. The power, the ideology - these, it now seems, were all nothing more than illusions. Really, there was no power, no ideology; only fear. There is something of F. in us all.

But there is also a converse to F.; another case in Lowell's book. This is R., a woman suffering from severe amnesia, brought about by brain disease, which rendered her almost totally incapable of having any short term memory. R. was cared for in the psychiatric hospital where Lowell worked. Every day, her husband would visit, bringing her a bunch of flowers, and whenever R. saw him arrive she would hug him frantically, telling him how much she had missed him and how terrible it had been without him. She would go through this scene every single day. As soon as her husband left, she would forget seeing him; all that would remain was her long term memory of him from years before, and she would be filled again with sadness and longing. We have all known the experience of waking up and, for a moment, not knowing where we are - that feeling of disorientation, as if we have been suddenly put into a strange world. For R., every moment was like this.

Alongside the collective memory, the collective fantasy, there is also the collective will to forget; when once more the time has come for some "alteration and amendment". Not only was there no power, no ideology; not only was this all a terrible illusion, but it seems that it was the illusion of just a handful of men, somehow perpetrated on the rest of us. And now we are all filled with insatiable nostalgia for the time long ago, before their evil was allowed to pollute us. Again, there is something of R. in us all.

Why do these medical anecdotes fascinate me? For the same reason that Galli fascinates me; because I am reminded that what we regard as reality is only a point in an infinite space of possibilities. And everything we see has come about by an accumulation of accidents; the random preference for one possibility over another. Why have the banners and mannequins been replaced by Lego models? Why were the banners and mannequins there in the first place? There is no inevitability about any of it; we might as well argue about why the sun shines today when yesterday it was cloudy.

But I am digressing - so easy to let my mind wander, when I pause from writing and watch the landscape in its rich evening colours as it passes by the window of the train. Tomorrow I shall start again, and begin to tell the story of how it was that Robert Waters met his death.