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Fiction Tells a Truth That History Cannot


On being mentored by Breyten Breytenbach and Paul Bowles.
Maaza Mengiste, Havana, Cuba. © Maaza Mengiste.

Maaza Mengiste on Breyten Breytenbach

I was completing my first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, set during a Marxist-backed revolution that began in Ethiopia in 1974. What I knew of the history was personal, the estimated 500,000 killed pared down to three who were in my family. I wasn’t sure what it meant to write fiction of a national tragedy. I didn’t know how those three lives could be contained in what has been called the Artful Lie. Wasn’t this revolution the terrain of nonfiction? I asked my professor, the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach. Isn’t there an obligation to honor the dead by speaking of them exactly as they existed?

Breyten had been jailed for several years in South Africa, beginning in 1975, for his antiapartheid activities. He had written extensively about his experiences through poetry, memoir, as well as essays, plays, and short stories. It seemed to me that he had found the voice through which to speak those moments, whereas I had been able to confront mine only in silence, trapped by my own misgivings and questions. I felt I had no language to address those ghosts that hovered across every page I tried to write. I had no way to approach them, and it seemed that it was my own fault. This was not a story to be rendered through creative writing. This held too many sharp edges. The wounds, as I witnessed when I asked family and friends to speak of their experiences, were still too raw. Only solid facts, undiluted by the craft of storytelling, seemed sturdy enough to carry the weight of this history.

What Breyten said to me was this: I could write this story. I had the talent. And that sometimes, fiction tells a truth that history cannot.

But what did I really know of the cost of Ethiopia’s revolution? What did I know of the way communities change under a Marxist- or Communist-backed regime? What did I know of the effects of ration cards and literacy programs on families, of nationalized properties and new value systems, of the many ways that life can continue to go on, despite it all? I didn’t know enough. But I would need to learn as best as I could. In my trips to Ethiopia, I had found that present-day changes sometimes pressed too closely against the past, nearly stamped it out. I wanted to try to observe a small part of revolutionary history by walking into it, and hoped that imagination could do the rest. I decided that I would travel to Cuba. I knew I would be there as a foreigner. I would be an outsider. My observations would be peripheral and brief. All of this would be inadequate, but I hoped that it would reveal something unexpected. Some way for me to look back at those three lost lives and find the words to speak of them.

It was in a tiny, sun-drenched café in Havana that I met a man whose father will never forget Ethiopia. I know your country, R., the son of a former Cuban soldier stationed in Ethiopia in the late 1970s, tells me as we sit down and order sweet coffee. You eat like this, and he motions with his hands. Your city is beautiful, he continues. Your music, he adds as he smiles.

I hear the way stories can rewrite the erased facts of history. I see the way remembrance and retelling can gather around a silenced life and give it form.

R.’s father fought next to Ethiopians in the border wars with Somalia and Eritrea. He had been a young man, then, sent on behalf of the Cuban government in a show of support and solidarity. On his return to Cuba, R.’s father told his stories so many times that his son could repeat specific details of geography and culture by heart. Three wars, he tells me later in a quiet moment, holding three fingers up to my face. My father had to fight in three wars: Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique. All he got was a black-and-white television, he says, unable to wipe the bitterness from his voice. In the tiny café I watch him wade through unspoken memories. I think back to something else another Cuban man told me, a statement that I now begin to understand. Our blood, he had said, is soaked in your land. Your people and mine share more than history.

I can hear something of my own quest in R.’s voice. In his family, too, history had stepped in and left silence. Three wars had been boiled down to a black-and-white television set and given to a young man who repeated only good memories to his son. The TV, the anecdotes, the small facts of Ethiopian food and music—all of it hinting at a truth that tells a more complex story than the history R. learned at school. Sitting in that café, on that hot summer day, I hear the way stories can rewrite the erased facts of history. I see the way remembrance and retelling can gather around a silenced life and give it form.

Breyten’s words come back to me: R.’s stories tell a truth that history cannot. But what does history tell that cannot be encompassed by our stories? As R. recounts another incident from his father’s life, I go back to those three wars experienced by a man who had been no more than a boy. I go back to those nearly 500,000 lives lost during my country’s revolution. I see moments too overwhelming to comprehend except through the personal and intimate. How to quantify what is lost when we lose 500,000? How to stand before the thought of three different wars and really understand what was seen and felt and lived? Only fiction allows us the breathing room to take it all in, in increments. It rests in pauses and silences. It offers us a mercy not found in history. History is ruthless and full of noise; it must be reduced for us to bear the burdens of its many truths.

Through Breyten, I see that fiction tells a truth that history cannot. Through R., I begin to understand that fiction offers a solace when history is too much. As writers we like to say that imagination moves faster than awareness, but I realize, too, that awareness is shaped by imagination. There is no other way to understand what is contained in a certain moment in history—those 500,000 gone, those three wars fought—without first imagining the individual stories unfolding at its center.

There were three and now there are none.

Here is an elderly man sitting in front of an outdated black-and-white television set, talking to his son.

*                      *                     *

Rodrigo Rey Rosa on Paul Bowles

It’s been twenty-six years since I first set foot in Tangier. “It looks like Sicily, with a touch of Greece and the south of Spain, without the camels,” I thought, half-asleep, pressing my head against the window of an old school bus that was taking me, together with fifty or so North American students, from the Boukhalef Airport to the American School of Tangier, on the rue Christophe Colomb, which now goes by a name out of The Arabian Nights, Harun er Rashid. Willows, poplars, and Roman cypresses lined either side of the road that was leading us through the hills and fields; poppies rose above the ripening wheat, oleander betrayed the wetness beneath the dried-up streams, and the palm trees shone in the sun, the Atlantic’s dark-blue horizon in the distance. I don’t know why, but all of this filled me with a sense of well-being, as though I were under the effect of some drug; during that sleepy trek in a decrepit school bus, and after the flight from New York, already Tangier held the promise of adventure. Most of the students were fledgling painters or photographers from New York City, but some of us were aspiring writers who wanted to show our work to an author whose impressive body of work I had only begun reading three or four weeks before setting out on this trip, a man whose name the students uttered with an almost fearful reverence: Paul Bowles.

In Advertisements for Myself from 1959, Norman Mailer, the cranky old know-it-all, proclaimed: “Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square.” And the caustic Gore Vidal, so fastidious in his taste, wrote the following in his introduction to Bowles’s Collected Stories in 1979: “The short stories of Paul Bowles are among the best ever written by an American…. As Webster saw the skull beneath the skin, so Bowles has glimpsed what lies back of our sheltering sky,…an endless flux of stars so like those atoms which make us up that in our apprehension of this terrible infinity, we experience not only horror but likeness.”

That afternoon, after a light snack in the school’s dining hall and an inaugural speech delivered by some professor or other, the students were assigned their rooms, and I’m almost sure everyone fell asleep. The dream that accompanied my first Tangier siesta seemed like a good omen, although it wasn’t particularly pleasant. It was a vivid dream, and now, more than a quarter of a century later, I remember it clearly. It belonged to a category of dream I’d call “of an invisible presence,” a type of dream I often have. The dream is static. The dreamer finds himself in a room identical to the one in which he is sleeping. The dream reproduces the circumstances, the reality, of the sleeper exactly. But suddenly he senses something wrong: the dreamer knows he’s not alone, even though he hears and sees nothing. There’s someone there, beyond his field of vision, in total silence. The dreamer feels observed. He wants to turn over, face that presence, which may be hostile. He lacks the strength to turn over (he is facing the wall), he tries to open his eyes, but he can’t lift his eyelids either. It is then that he realizes he is dreaming. He wants to yell, but no sound comes out of his mouth—in the distance, he can hear the crickets, the call of a muezzin, the whistling wind. Finally he awakens, opens his eyes, turns around. The room, as expected, is identical to the one in the dream. No one is there. And yet…

Disheartened, I sensed that my initial forays into narrative fiction, their outmoded style…couldn’t possibly interest this “hardline existentialist.”

One afternoon, two or three days after our arrival, we saw Paul Bowles for the first time. He was accompanied by a tall Moroccan man who held his round, balding head erect. They were crossing the sports field that separated the American School from the student dorms, where the writing workshop was supposed to take place. Bowles at age seventy was a thin man, with per-fectly white hair; an unruly tuft of it glimmered beneath the three o’clock sun. They both walked quickly, but in a dignified manner. I don’t remember how the Moroccan, who was Bowles’s driver and trusted friend, was dressed. The American writer wore various tones of beige and white, and sunglasses with tortoiseshell frames and opaque lenses, which lent him a distant, modern flair; there was a mineral, almost metallic, dryness about him, it seems to me now. Disheartened, I sensed that my initial forays into narrative fiction, their outmoded style—a style that undoubtedly revealed (that I undoubtedly wanted to reveal) the influence of Jorge Luis Borges—couldn’t possibly interest this “hardline existentialist,” which is how my older colleagues had referred to Bowles.

I think it was during that first session, though it could have been a week later, when Bowles declared that he did not consider himself a teacher, that he didn’t believe you could teach anyone how to write fiction. If he had accepted the offer to lead this workshop despite his skepticism, it was because the school director had succeeded in convincing him that there were people willing to pay money so that he would read their manuscripts and give his opinion about them, and that was all he was prepared to do. And then he added that he wouldn’t have done it had it not been because he needed the money, because he wasn’t what you could call a rich man. Someone may have asked him if he hadn’t made a lot of money with his books. In any case, Bowles said that the literary success of a book (the only kind of success that should concern a serious writer) was no guarantee of profit, and while books sometimes provided just enough to get by, they only rarely enriched those who had written them. “If some of you are under the impression that I can teach you to write best sellers that will make you lots of money, you’re in the wrong place,” he said with a smile.

For our introductions, he asked us to mention, in addition to our birthplace and how long we had been writing seriously, our favorite books or authors. I can’t remember the authors I mentioned other than Borges, but I do remember that this reference caught his attention. Moreover, the fact that I was from Guatemala led him to approach me after class and tell me, in Spanish, that he had traveled throughout Guatemala and Mexico, and that if English wasn’t my native language, I could write in Spanish, which he had no difficulty reading. Borges was also an author he admired and he had read his work in Spanish, he added, and, as I was to learn later, he had been the first to translate a Borges story into English (“The Circular Ruins,” published in View in January 1946).

At the next session, Bowles suggested that we meet in his apartment, which was close to the school, instead of the student dorms. He told us he could offer us a cup of tea while we discussed our work, and I don’t believe anyone was opposed to the idea. Abdelouahaid, his driver, could pick up the older members at the school (the majority of my colleagues were over fifty) and take them to the Itesa Building; the younger ones could walk.

The Itesa Building—where Bowles had lived since the 1950s and where he remained until two weeks before his death in 1999 at age eighty-eight—was on the slope of a hill surrounded by barren fields that brought to mind the countryside, with goats and sheep grazing here and there, but a countryside under threat from the homes and buildings that were sprouting in every direction like a plague of mushrooms. It was an Italian-style apartment building with smooth, wide marble stairways built in the ’50s. Bowles’s apartment, on whose door I knocked for the first time one afternoon at the start of the sacred and fearsome month of Ramadan, was on the fourth and last floor. Nowadays other buildings block the view, but in the early 1980s you could still see, toward the north, a blue patch of the Strait of Gibraltar (an inverted triangle that rose up between Marshan Hill—covered with small Moroccan homes that looked like Legos in all the possible shades of white—and Monteviejo—a hillside made green by the gardens of the European residences), which the people of Tangier affectionately call la coupe de champagne.

“There are places in the world that contain more magic than others.” Bowles once wrote something along those lines. Be that as it may, for me that small apartment, its thick curtains almost always drawn, its Berber rugs, its walls covered floor to ceiling with books, its handful of striking pieces of African art, the collection of Moroccan drums and qasbas (always available in case a jilali came to visit and felt like playing some music), the smell of sandalwood incense combined with burning kief or the scent of tea—this place contained more magic than any other I had known until then.

At first, Paul and I talked mostly about Borges’s fiction, about Bioy (whom I hadn’t yet read), and also about traveling through Central America. I don’t recall our speaking about my writing (fortunately), and though Bowles had ceased being just an author whose work I admired and a “hardline existentialist,” I still didn’t believe that, beyond those pleasant conversations aided by kief and tea, he would take an interest in my attempts at narrative. When I expressed my desire to visit the Moroccan interior—especially the Rif—Bowles encouraged me. He told me I could miss a few workshop sessions, that he didn’t think I would be interested in hearing what everyone had to say about each other’s work, especially considering that they wrote in English and about life in the United States, and he even loaned me maps of northern Morocco for the trip. So I counted myself dismissed and concluded, with the simplemindedness of a 21-year-old, I should admit, that it was all for the best. I told myself that next time I would skip the workshop sessions in English and—I assume I consoled myself in this manner—at least I would get to know a bit of Morocco. I visited the Rif, I walked among the unending fields of cannabis in the unstable Ketama region, and I returned to Tangier satisfied with my little adventure, believing I had accomplished everything I had set out to do in that place. A few days before returning to New York, Bowles asked me, in that formal tone of his, if I would let him translate the stories, or, rather, the prose poems that I had shown him during the workshop. A publishing house in New York that specialized in extravaganzas had requested a contribution from him for its catalogue, but he didn’t have anything to send them at the moment. It seemed to him, he told me, that if he translated what I had written, they just might be interested in publishing them. Of course I gave him my permission, and we agreed that he would send his translation to my address in New York so I could review it and, if it was to my liking, we could submit the work to Red Ozier Press, the small publishing house for rare books. That is how our long collaboration began, a necessarily asymmetrical collaboration, given the fact that a reluctant master translating the work of an apprentice is never the equivalent of the latter translating the work of the master, no matter how valiant the effort.

The last year I spent a significant amount of time in Tangier was 1998. King Hassan II was about to die, and his son would bring about many changes, most of them purely cosmetic. But the outside world had changed as well, and those changes were evident in the life of the city. There were female police officers in the street, new settlements of migrants from the countryside appeared with increasing frequency, and ghettos had sprung up, inhabited by immigrants from other parts of Africa, for whom Tangier was the last stop before setting out to breach Europe’s fortress. Truly, the city would be transformed to such a degree that, of the Tangier of the 1980s, one could repeat what Bowles had written when comparing the city he had discovered in the 1930s to the one he saw anew in the 1950s: “only the wind remains.”

I stayed, as I had so many times during the fifteen years that I persisted in visiting the city, in the Atlas Hotel, built in the Art Deco style at about the same time as the Itesa Building and where I had begun writing the only novel of mine that takes place in Tangier, The African Shore. It was winter and the heating at the Atlas was still deficient, so when I was invited to stay for the remainder of my visit in a nineteenth-century European mansion surrounded by gardens in the Monteviejo—and with views of the cliffs overlooking the Pillars of Hercules and the town of Tarifa embedded in the Spanish coast—I considered myself the most fortunate Guatemalan on the whole of the African continent.

By then Paul had become an emaciated old man in chronic convalescence, confined to his bedroom and unable to read due to cataracts, although always full of wit. His aesthetic activity was limited almost exclusively to listening to music—which sometimes entered his room in the form of the calls of the muezzin from the three or four mosques nearby, whose voices recalled the modulation of flamenco singers, or from the drums and rhaita solos during the nights of Ramadan.

Under no circumstances were they to become aware that those papers and books were anything more than a bunch of dusty old volumes and scribblings, and not the personal library and literary legacy of a celebrated author.

Here is a list of memories—written haphazardly—of the things we talked about during all those years at the Itesa with Paul: The discipline of traveling. Conrad and the sea. The sounds of the jungle and the desert. Graham Greene, Norman Lewis, R. B. Cunninghame Grahame. Westermarck. Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith. Moroccan fatalism. Jane Bowles. Kafka, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, François Augiéras. The feeling that the body is an obstacle. The idea of death as a final liberation. The effects of kif. The inventive talent of Mohammed Mrabet. The disadvantages of alcohol. Fiction writing as a controlled dream. Style as instrument. The physical act of writing—placing pen to paper—as a propitiatory ritual or the source of so-called inspiration.

I’ve since lost the notebook where I jotted down the traces of a dream I had, but if I hadn’t written them perhaps I would have lost the memory of the dream as well, one of the last dreams I had in Tangier, one that I’ll attempt to describe now.

I was staying again in that magnificent home in the Monteviejo neighborhood in Tangier, with its gardens and view of the strait. The owner, Claude-Nathalie Thomas, who translated Paul’s work into French, had loaned it to me in her absence, and I was alone. It was winter, and in my second-story bedroom in that house on the road to Sidi Masmoudi, a fire of olive and eucalyptus wood burned merrily in the small fireplace. Downstairs, in the entrance hall and small courtyard with its glass ceiling, the full moon of November in the year 2000 coldly lit ninety-eight cardboard boxes stacked upon the black-and-white checkerboard floor of ceramic or marble. The boxes, numbered and labeled by my own hand, contained the books, notebooks, and papers belonging to the personal library of Paul Bowles, who had died one year earlier, having bequeathed to me this incredible inheritance. A day or two later I would have to transport these boxes from Tangier to Spanish territory, and it would be necessary to sneak past the vigilant customs agents on both sides of the strait. Under no circumstances were they to become aware that those papers and books were anything more than a bunch of dusty old volumes and scribblings, and not the personal library and literary legacy of a celebrated author. In other words, an inheritance. And the general opinion was that an inheritance left in Muslim lands by a North American nazrani to a Guatemalan one would not easily leave Moroccan territory.

I dreamt that I awoke in that house, in the room with the fireplace, and a fire was burning in the dream as well. I walked out into the hall and looked downstairs at the center of the courtyard. Suddenly I was down there, without having taken any stairs, among the boxes of books and papers, only in the dream they were now open. On the circular black tile that marked the center of the courtyard, there was a life-sized metallic bust upon another metallic pedestal, a bust of Paul, an elderly but upright Paul, with the tuft of hair over his forehead and with a slightly haughty expression. But now the boxes have caught fire, and I realize that it is a cremation ceremony. I think: “Of course, Paul asked to be cremated.” Now Abdelouahaid, in whose company I had first seen Paul twenty years earlier, is at my side. We both watch the flames incredulously, filled with sadness. We hear a scream, a horrible scream of pain. It is coming, unbelievably, from the bust. Abdelouahaid and I look at each other, and it is he who says, although I was already thinking the same thing: “It’s Paul, he’s inside. We have to get him out!” We pass through the burning boxes to reach the bust, which is smoking and looks as though it is about to melt. Abdelouahaid sees (and I see that he sees) some metal buttons along the nape and back of the bust. We rush to unfasten them. Inside the bust, suddenly liberated, stands an old and very weak Paul, staggering and unsteady in his camel-hair robe, the Paul to whom I had said my last farewell on the eve of his death in the Italian hospital a year earlier. Abdelouahaid and I place his arms on our shoulders and lead him through the flames; we exit through the hallway, where we can already see the starry night of Tangier, the silhouettes of the Roman cypresses beyond the Moorish arch of the magnificent house at Monteviejo with its grand doorway, which is wide open.

Translated from the Spanish by James J. López


“Maaza Mengiste on Breyten Breytenbach” and “Rodrigo Rey Rosa on Paul Bowles” are forthcoming in A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (University of Massachusetts Press), edited by Jeff Parker and Annie Liontas.

“Rodrigo Rey Rosa on Paul Bowles” originally appeared in Spanish in Lentra Internacional, 2006.

Maaza Mengiste is a Fulbright scholar, a photographer, and the award-winning author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, selected by The Guardian as one of the ten best contemporary African books. The novel was also named one of the best books of 2010 by the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. Her fiction and nonfiction writing appears in The New Yorker, The Guardian, the New York Times, BBC Radio 4, Granta, and Lettre Internationale, among other places. Her second novel, The Shadow King, is forthcoming.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa was born in Guatemala in 1958. His novels and story collections, which have been translated into various languages, include The Beggar’s Knife (1986); Still Water (1990); Jail of Trees (1991); Let Them Kill Me If… (1996); No Sacred Place (1998); The African Shore (1999); Enchanted Stones (2001); The Train to Travancore (2002); Some Other Zoo (2005); The Stable (2006); Human Material (2009); Severina (2011); The Deaf (2012); and 1986. Complete Stories (2014). Tail of the Dragon (2014) is a compilation of his articles and essays. He has also translated into Spanish works by authors such as Paul Bowles, Norman Lewis, Paul Léautaud, François Augiéras, and Robert Fitterman. In 2004 he was awarded Guatemala’s Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature.

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