If goblins don't exist
A while ago, my oldest son Cornelius asked me: 'Mama, if goblins don't exist, then why is there a word for it?' A crucial question indeed, which he felt I should be able to answer since I am a storyteller. I told him something about people at some point believing certain things existed and therefore creating a word for them, and it seemed plausible at first. But the answer did not satisfy me and the question has haunted me since. Does the word for the non-existing express hope, the belief that it could exist, that it should exist? Does it contain an element of fear: 'Let us name it, let us think of it while we are awake so that it does not visit us in our dreams'? I do not know, I hear my son and daughter discuss on the backbench, my son claims that 'infinity' does not exist and I feel I can agree. Still there is a word for it; people even use it for sophisticated calculations. Do we hope that there is such a thing as infinity? Do we fear so? The question makes me think that stories that did not really happen, non-existing situations, experienced by non-existing characters at a non-existing location may come from the writer's head with the same ambition: suppressing the fear that it ever happens, but at the same time expressing hope in how it could develop if it ever happened.
For sure, my writing does so. In the way I imagine stories and create situations in my head that I want to make my characters deal with, I thrive on a magic thinking that can be summarized as follows: Bad Things only happen to people who are not prepared, I have thought of some Bad Thing so I am prepared, thus it will not happen to me. First I imagine The Bad Thing happening to me personally: I try to see how I react, what I do, do I find sensible solutions or do I get stuck in impulsive ones. Do I get caught in shock or do I remain calm and alert? My novel Falling started by trying to imagine what I would do if my beloved was stuck in a burning car. Do I mutilate him to save him? Do I destroy the limbs that are most precious to him (his hands, for my beloved is a writer)? Very soon I replace my beloved one by a fictional character. It becomes easier to think about the terrible things happening that way. It takes out the taboo that we all know: 'Don't think these terrible thoughts!' which makes us jump up and turn on the radio to cut the mental flow.
The non-existing characters in the non-existing situation allow me to leave the radio turned off. Because it is not real, because it is only fiction, I can go digging. People have assumed that I wanted to write a book against racism and right extremism. I did not. I wanted to write about the fear that comes up when one is confronted with choices. Right extremism came as a tool, as a useful means to explain what making choices can be about. They do have something in common, of course, extremism and the complexity of making choices. Both topics are vast, I cannot understand them. Writing about things you cannot grab makes a novel worth working on for four to six years. The sudden feeling somewhere in the writing process that now you understand, would kill the novel. But the essential question I had when starting was: how do we choose? meaning: how would I choose when confronted with the dilemma.
As it is with words for things that do not exist, the non-existing characters in the non-existing situation contain that element of hope: if only the elves existed, if only there was such a person as the tooth fairy, if only the woods housed a unicorn. What is then the element of hope in a story about racism, petrol bombs, mutilation and weakness? It is not the hope that in future generations things will turn out better, or that soon racism will be non-existent, stories are usually less ambitious than that. Is it the hope that the novel can say something about what to do in cases of racist behavior or fascist rhetoric? Or about making choices in difficult situations? Does it give guidelines in how to pass on history to other generations? I'm not sure… People say: 'In the novel you show that Lucas's mother was wrong in not informing the boy on his grandfathers past.' I'm not sure. I disagree with the common idea that the truth is always right. People say: 'In the novel you show that with a strong mind youngsters can get away from inherited guilt.' I'm not sure. In the movie the director makes Lucas say: 'Maybe some things just can't be forgiven,' and he may have a point. People say: if all you say is that you do not know, then you have a negative message, one without hope for such things as solutions. And then they of course quote Falling where it says:
'As I stood looking, I became conscious of a thought that has not left my mind since that day: that life is intolerable. It hurts on all sides, and no matter how you wriggle, you can't escape the blows. You have to make choices and every choice is the wrong one. I stood in the Cercle, and could not choose. So I stood, waiting till it was over.' And they are right, the text is there, I cannot deny it. It is there because that feeling of hopelessness exists, and therefore it needs expression. But hopelessness is not the only feeling. There are many others. A few of them will be in the novel, the most important one being the one of hope. You will ask me: then where is the hope, where is the commitment, the hand stretched out towards the other? Do you not have a plan, a message, a target, an ambition to reach out then? I sure do have an ambition, it is little; it is no more than what I am looking for when I read. It is the allowance to step in someone else's shoes, to pull on someone else's skin, to become someone I technically cannot be because of my limitations in space and time. A well-written novel (and a well made movie, for that matter) will stretch my empathic ability, it will make my mind more pliable, liberate my thinking. And is flexibility, the capacity to go beyond yourself, to identify with the other, the opponent, the rival, the partner, not exactly what is needed for such things as understanding and reconciliation?
When I read, I feel that I enjoy it when I can identify with the characters. But the enjoyment is easily suffocated when I recognize too much in the novel. I find I stop reading because I have no interest in learning about exactly me (that is of course apart from the language, which can be a drive for reading in itself, but to me language alone is rarely sufficient). I want the things told to alienate, not only in style but also in content. I want to see that what is told is different from myself in very crucial aspects and therefore challenging for me to think about. Youngsters will come up to me and say: 'You don't understand young adults. We are not like Lucas. We do have a back bone.' Then I challenge them: petrol bombs are being thrown. Very often by youngsters. This story can be your exercise to get into such a persons skin. You may not be like him. You may not ever want to be like him. You may be so talented and strong headed that you become a judge. And then you may one day find weak Lucas in your bench and you may better understand what drove him.
A novel cannot do much. But maybe it offers practical exercises, test cases at self-chosen moments, practicing the reader in being what he is not, what he does not wish to be. The reader can be invited to 'swerve'. More than anything else, Falling is about the versatility of people. Especially of young people. Lucas's fall, for example, can be followed by an opposite movement: he stands up and helps install the asylum seekers. You see the character go down, but as he is young, chances are high that he will bounce back. An adult throwing a petrol bomb into a refugee home is in a sense more 'lost' than a youngster doing the same thing is. The distance that I as an author create by putting the character Caitlin in the burning car, rather than my beloved, will help the reader in the same way as it helps me. The novel becomes a coat he puts on and wears for a while. He has experienced the situation without being in any way threatened by it. What the book said will fade, whether it defended reconciliation or not becomes unimportant. What is important is that it shed the light on the difficulty of choosing, independent of the choices the character made, and the understanding that each argument, even the politically less correct one, has its dignity. More important than the question of who is guilty is the problem of inherited versus personal guilt, and the awareness that different kinds of guilt are there, also in other lives and in other situations. I like the idea that a novel resembles a mousetrap. You are lured into it by a well-defined intrigue and by a language that evoques clear images, and then you discover that even if you wished to get out there is no way back. You want to believe: 'I am not like that, I do not resemble this character' but already the issue has grasped you and sticks to you like a second skin.
Openingsspeech van Anne Provoost in Adelaide, Australië op 3 april 2005 op het symposium 'Re:views', over literaire kritiek.