If read between the lines, the fiction of Booker Prize-winning author George Saunders reveals how historical interpretations, often unreliable, can lead to ideological disasters

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American illustrator and writer Lane Smith once challenged George Saunders (64), the Booker Prize-winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo, to write a story in which all the characters were abstract shapes. What started as a dare to Saunders culminated in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005), one of the finest fables of the 21st century. Smith, who illustrated Saunders’s debut children’s book, merely attempted to pique the writer’s interest. However, Saunders took it too far, writing a 130-page novella that critics often call the Animal Farm of modern times.

Set in an abstract world — with characters made of machine parts, flesh, and foliage — the fable tells a gripping tale of a power-hungry despot called Phil. The story, which centres on the tensions between two countries, Inner Horner and Outer Horner, exhibits Saunders’s literary finesse and his acute historical sensibility, a facet of his craft that is barely talked about.

Inner Horner, being incredibly tiny, with only one inhabitant fitting inside at a time, mysteriously keeps shrinking, causing Inner Hornerites to stand very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner. The opulent Outer Hornerites, believing themselves favoured by God, view Inner Hornerites as ‘others’, ‘inferiors’ and ‘threats’, a narrative further consolidated by Phil, who has seized power of the Outer Horner from a weak president. The plot reads like a despot’s manual — an ultimate step-by-step cookbook for preparing the environment for and carrying out genocidal murder.

Inner Hornerites’ inadvertent incursion into the Outer territory irks Outer Hornerites, who worry about elbow room in their own territory, giving rise to the despot Phil, who cries out against ‘invasion’ by the Inner Hornerites. Like Adolf Hitler, Phil has a Goebbelsian press, bludgeoning hatred and propaganda into the minds of Outer Hornerites, a classic example of how despots ‘otherise’ a minority and hold them responsible for all the woes of the land. The plot ultimately reaches a series of events in the novel that remind us of genocides that have happened in the past.

It comes as no surprise that Saunders drew his inspiration for the book from Rwanda, Bosnia, the Holocaust and Iraq. Throughout the book, there are gripping incidents exhibiting how systematic genocide occurs — classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation preparation, and persecution. The book showcases Saunders’s prowess in writing brilliant experimental fiction rich in the sensibilities of history.

History as a personal construct

Although Saunders knows how much we can rely on history, he is brutally aware, as reflected subtly in his later works, of the inadvertent infirmity of history as a discipline, as the renowned British historiographer Keith Jenkins puts it: history’s inability to tell us the truth as it existed. Jenkins, in his book Rethinking History (1991), makes an inconspicuous distinction between ‘past’ and ‘history’, laying out the former as how the world actually existed and the latter as the excruciating labour of a historian to make sense of whatever evidence he has in bits and pieces. “The past has gone,” writes Jenkins, “and history is what historians make of it when they go to work.”

Jenkins’s proposition is simple: what we have on the bookshelves is not ‘past’ but merely a reading on the past, what we call history. In short, history is incapable of making claims about the truth. If you are reading GR Elton’s England Under the Tudors (1955), pass the history test and gain an A in English History, it would be more accurate to say that “you have an A level in Geoffrey Elton.” In other words, you do not have a reading of England’s past, but Elton’s reading of it.

In a nutshell, Jenkins points out that “no matter how verifiable, how widely acceptable or checkable, history remains inevitably a personal construct, a manifestation of the historian’s perspective as a ‘narrator’.” Jenkins further consolidates his argument by pointing out the grave epistemological, methodological and ideological problems that prevent us from knowing the past. “We see through [into the past] an interpreter,” says Jenkins, who “stands between past events and our readings of them.”

When George Saunders once visited Washington DC, a relative showed him a crypt located on a hill, explaining that in 1862, during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency years and Civil War, Lincoln’s son, Willie, had passed away and was temporarily placed in that crypt. Several newspapers of the time had reported that the deeply mourning Lincoln had entered the crypt on several occasions to hold the little boy’s lifeless body in his lap. The incident piqued Saunders’ interest and inspired him to write his debut full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017).

The novel, too, reflects Saunders’ penchant for experimental fiction as it is written in dramatic monologues and has over a hundred characters who are not alive. Some chunks of the book are made up of verbatim quotes from various historical sources, which Saunders had cut and arranged to fill the narrative. “This was the only way,” Saunders told Zadie Smith in an interview, “I could get in some necessary historical facts.”

A narrative prose discourse

In the first part of the novel, Saunders, with the dexterity of a watchmaker, sets the tone for the night when Willie Lincoln dies, carefully placing an array of fictive monologues, actual historical references, like cogwheels of a watch, to set the narrative going. In the process, Saunders’ profound historical nuances come into play. What catches the eye are the pieces he sources from the historical documents — that are divergent and widely differing from one another, hence unreliable if the reader seeks ‘truth’. The most compelling example of this is a chapter where multiple eyewitnesses fail to provide a unanimous account of the moon’s appearance on the evening preceding Willie’s death. Saunders, presumably, sources the incident from letters, diaries, and other historical documents.

Some entries talk about the “beautiful moon that shone that evening,” and “the gold moon, hanging quaintly above the scene.” Surprisingly, there is an account that denies the appearance of the moon altogether: “There was no moon that night, and the sky was heavy with clouds.” Some accounts differ even on the shape of the moon. “A fat green crescent,” says one source, and “silver wedge,” says another. The moon, ironically, was golden, green, silver, yellow-red and even blue. It is only possible if the poor moon was either camouflaging or all the guests mistook a giant disco ball for it.

Saunders’ choice of referencing the documents and testimonies and placing them the way they are laid out in the novel is subtle, pointing towards a disease that ails history: the historian’s inadvertent reliability on sources and his desperate labour to seek truth from them. Historians write histories, and as accounts are infinite, so are their versions and interpretations, and interpretations have repercussions far beyond the text.

In What is History (1961), E.H. Carr writes, “[Historical facts] are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use.” “These two factors being, of course,” he says, “determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants”.

If there can be differences in the accounts of easily verifiable natural phenomena — for example, the moon’s appearance — there can be fallible accounts of the versions of histories that, deliberately or otherwise, perpetrate ideological differences and result in chaos in the world, just like Saunders shows us what Inner Hornerites go through in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

Saunders’ literary expression in Lincoln in the Bardo goes in tune with the line of post-modern historiographers like Richard Rorty and Hayden White— a view that assumes history is dubious and fallible and has always been a narrative prose discourse, of which, as Hayden White says, the content is ‘as much imagined/invented as found’.

George Saunders deals with the historical aspects of his work with utmost precision and caution. If read between the lines, his fiction lays bare the facts of the world, revealing how historical interpretations, often unreliable, can lead to ideological disasters, making it an unbearable place to live in.

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