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The Erotic Pull of the Strange: An Introduction View other pieces in "Zoetrope All-Story"
By Mark Danner SUMMER 2003
Tags: Foreign Affairs | Writing Print

The first time I was killed, or nearly so, came just past dawn on election day 1987 at a deserted crossroads in northern Haiti. I had endless time, in the half-second it took to collapse face-first in the dust, to savor the tableau before me: jackknifed in the intersection, a riderless motorcycle, front wheel still spinning; fanned across the ground beside it a sheaf of blackened election ballots, one or two still burning fitfully, the candidate's dark face and white teeth grinning in the flames. I can see it still, this scene; still relish, sixteen years later, the pleasure afforded by its facile symbols. The shooters, though, I hardly glimpsed. A large sedan filled with militiamen, the car had barreled headlong down the street; but now, in my mind's eye, it advances slowly and I see no faces, only the muzzle of the weapon, see no flashes, only the bursts of cement thrown up by the shells striking the walls. As my face thuds against the earth, I feel a feathery caress at the nape of my neck: the drizzle of plaster from the bullets tattooing the wall above.

The second time I was killed, or nearly so, came a few hours later, just north of the capital as we slowed at a roadblock of tree trunks and cinderblocks and old car parts and a crowd of drunken peasants appeared from nowhere and dragged us from the car. The rabble of men with machetes engulfed us, churning and shouting; we argued, pleaded, holding our press cards before us like pitiful shields. Then, after a moment's pause, the scene turned very dark: the tough old man closest to me, small, leathery-faced, narrow-eyed, hissed, "Kommunis!"Communist! I'd heard it often that week, shouted at moments like this one; and as he raised his machete and the foot or so between us began to vanish I was startled to feel, behind my fear, a moment of intense narrative pleasure: yes, of course. After a week of standing ogling, cameras and notebooks poised, as Haitians chopped to pieces other Haitians a few feet from us, after a week spent recording precisely what body part and how much of it was hacked off and paraded triumphantly down the street, suddenly on this bloody election day the privileged position we had taken for granted—untouchable, unreachable, white—collapses and we are dragged, mouths agape and fingers clinging with ridiculous desperation to our now useless notebooks and cameras, onto the stage to become props in the bloody play. Surprising yet inevitable, like any good climax. Of course the story would end this way. How perfect.

On the other hand, perhaps it was all a bit too . . . pat, this story of reporters hacked to pieces by their own story. Someone clearly thought so; for at precisely the necessary moment on that utterly deserted road a wealthy man, a diminutive mulatto in a sports shirt driving an expensive four-wheel-drive, happened upon us and, armed with nothing more than his light skin and a half-century's practice in ruling over those darker than himself, commanded the peasants with their raised machetes to "Fuck off out of there!"And they, after an excruciating moment of wide-eyed and near-comic paralysis—however near-revolutionary their drunken mood had been—did just that. On a day marked by the world to let the poorest of the poor take power in Haiti, on a day on which four less lucky reporters died in pools of their own blood on those sun-drenched streets, we owed our lives to our white skins and the Haitian color hierarchy. What better irony than that?

Still, irony is cheap and I must admit a secret preference for the violent outcome. I could tell it that way, of course—I just did, nearly so—but then it would be fiction. And, alas, a funny thing happens to the story on the way to the fiction shelf: it acquires a cheap veneer of melodrama. On the other hand, as a New Yorker "fact piece"—which was what I was writing—the story would have worked just fine, for the looming melodrama would have been excused, given a free pass by the fact that these characters and events happened to have counterparts in reality. On the other hand, if my preferred violent outcome had come to pass—had qualified as fact—I could not have been the one writing it.

We are all storytellers; we all work with narrative. We differ only in the rules we follow. And these rules, when set against the subtlety of narrative modes—the interplay of irony and symbol and structure—are very broad indeed, a breadth perfectly expressed by that most ridiculous of non-category categories: "nonfiction.""There is no such thing as a work of pure factuality,"writes Janet Malcolm, "any more than there is one of pure fictitiousness."She goes on:

As every work of fiction draws on life, so every work of nonfiction draws on art. As the novelist must curb his imagination in order to keep his text grounded in the common experience of man . . . so the journalist must temper his literal-mindedness with the narrative devices of imaginative literature.

Whether employed by a writer needing to "curb his imagination" or one seeking to "temper his literal-mindedness,"these narrative devices do not change. Plot, character, symbol are the ways we order experience, and the stories we tell, whatever their relation to "fact"or their final address in the bookstore, have these in common. If we persist in organizing works of narrative by their relationship to "truth," we'll find the official genres intersecting, looping back on one another. Place Nora Ephron's Heartburn next to Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor and ask which is "truer to the facts."Ephron's "novel"is a roman í  clef and many in Washington could identify the "real"original of every character and no doubt the time and place of every scene. For The Emperor, one would have great difficulty doing the same, though Kapuscinski's book is the "true story"of the fall of Haile Selassie, and no account of those events bears more truth or is told with more art.

Rules constrain but they also help us see. The pleasures that washed through me as I contemplated the riderless motorcycle and the burning ballots—symbols of a leaderless country and a torched election—are narrative pleasures, rooted deep within us. As with all arts unfolding in time, they draw their first life from suspense—from the need to quicken and advance. The sonata form, and its gripping epic of migration from the tonic to the dominant and then back again, is an archetype of this. In narrative, it is plot, story, resolution: the ineluctable move toward climax and denouement. We build these shapes into our world, into our public narratives and our private ones, whether they chart going to war or falling in love.

When we turn to stories of foreign places, to the erotic pull of the strange, it is no mystery that violence and death lie close to the heart of the darkness we find so mysterious—and feel so compelled to understand. As climactic events, violent acts offer the lure of illumination. As a onetime Haitian president told me, "Violence strips naked the body of a society, the better to place the stethoscope and hear the life beneath the skin."He meant, I think, that coups d'etat and revolutions—political violence in general—reveal in their unfolding the true but normally hidden structures of power. By enacting power in motion they show it in reality. And indeed it took only weeks for my friend's political bon mot to be revealed as prophecy, when he was overthrown and exiled by his erstwhile army chief.

He did not die, this president, but in his overthrow others did. He had accomplished little, having accepted power from a handful of disgraced and bloodstained officers in his need to write the conclusion to his own romance, a private tale of grandeur that had been spooling through his head during a quarter century of exile. Drunk with tales of war and triumph from the magical past of his ruined country, he had become desperate to see his own story completed—to see his "destiny fulfilled." And yet despite the struggle for power and the deaths entailed in losing it, his story was in the end a low one, with little to commend it to the chroniclers. Or such, anyway, is the verdict of the writer of "fact pieces"; a fiction writer might see it differently.

The man who killed me, or nearly so—the man who offered guns to those faceless men in the sedan, who had given rum to drink and a roadblock to guard to that band of peasants—had killed hundreds that day, murdered during his life hundreds more; and yet when I met him for breakfast in one of the capital's modern hotels, watched him carefully cut his mango there by the shimmering blue pool overlooking the city, I saw he would fail me as a character. However great his crimes appeared to me—the piles of bodies on election day, the hundreds tortured and murdered during the bloodiest days of the dictatorship—to him they were politics, that's all, the way the system worked. He seemed puzzled by my interest. There was no grandeur there: killing and torture were his day job, the dull mechanics of his profession. His art, on the other hand, was his Ideas—his Vision for the Nation. He cut his mango and set forth his Vision, smiling after each bite. He had killed me, or nearly so, and now we were both disappointed. His art did not interest me.

The third time I was killed, or nearly so, came on an unseasonably warm February day in a crowded market in Sarajevo. The schedule had slipped and we had not yet arrived when the mortar shell landed, leading us to find, moments later, a dark swamp of blood and broken bodies and staggering about in it the bereaved, shrieking and wailing amid an overwhelming stench of cordite. Already two men, standing in rubber boots knee-deep in a thick black lake, had begun to toss body parts into the back of a truck. Slipping about on the wet pavement, I tried my best to count the bodies and the parts of them, but the job was impossible: fifty? sixty? When all the painstaking matching had been done, sixty-eight had died there.

When I lunched with their killer the following day—the leader of the Serbs, surrounded in his mountain villa by a handful of beautiful bodyguards—he had little interest in the numbers. "Did you check their ears?"he asked. I'm sorry? "They had ice in their ears."I paused at this and took a moment to work on my stew. He meant the bodies had been planted, that the entire scene had been trumped up by Bosnian intelligence agents. He was a psychiatrist, this man, and it seemed to me, after a few minutes of questions, that he had gone far to convince himself of the truth of this scenario. He, too, preferred to speak of his Vision for the Nation.

For me, the problem in depicting him was simple: the level of his crimes dwarfed the content of his character. His motivations were paltry, in no way commensurate with the pain he had caused. It is often a problem with evil. Chat with a Salvadoran general about the massacre of a thousand people that he ordered and he will tell you that it was military necessity, that those people were supporting the guerrillas, that they had put themselves in harm's way, and that "such things happen in war."Speak to the young conscript who did the killing and he will tell you that he hated what he had to do, that he has nightmares about it still, but that he was following orders and that if he had refused he would have been killed. Neither is lying. Search for evil there and once you leave the corpses behind you will have great difficulty finding the needed grimacing face.

Talking with mass murderers is invariably a disappointment. Great acts so rarely call forth great character that the relation between the two seems nearly random. The fiction writer is free to correct this imbalance; the writer of fact, alas, is trapped by the rules he purports to follow. I could not make my killer into a great man; I had to fall back, as had Hannah Arendt, on irony—on the fact of this discrepancy between the magnitude of the acts and the banality of the actor. There is compensation, though, in this inequality; what Malcolm calls the reader's "epistemological insecurity,"according to which, "in a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened."She goes on:

We must always take the novelist's and the playwright's and the poet's word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer's or the autobiographer's or the historian's or the journalist's. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open. We can never know everything; there is always more.

Floating in an ocean of "epistemological insecurity,"my killer will remain a dynamic element, threatening the reader not only with his vitality but with his refusal to conform to the boundaries of his depiction. The fiction writer might provide motivation, attempt to draw a character interesting enough, compelling enough, to justify the acts he has committed. Once completed, however, this portrait is all there is, unmediated, true only to the writer's imagination and on that truth it will stand or fall. Can one construct a character commensurate with the hundred dead that election day? It is, surely, a great burden—that "this is the way it is."And it is partly to unshoulder that burden that fiction writers experiment so excitedly with point of view, in order to undermine in their narratives—as James did in The Sacred Fount or Ford in The Good Soldier—the unbearable "epistemological certainty" with which their profession had saddled them.

It is why Conrad constructed his Kurtz, perhaps fiction's most famous mass murderer, almost entirely of suspense, of the primal stuff of narrative itself. Kurtz's words are legendary: "The horror! The horror!" But apart from indirectly reported ravings before he dies, they are nearly all he says. The man is constructed not of dialogue or even direct description but of expectation and, finally, of dread. The dread belongs first to those who know him, then to Marlowe, and finally to us. The problem of evil my murderers could not solve for me is thrown back upon the reader. The "heart of darkness"is our own.

To construct the central character out of shadow and dread: it is a feat of narrative virtuosity that the fact writer can only envy. For us, of course, the light would be too bright; readers of "fact,"waiting to see the killer, would simply find the reporting a bit thin. Conrad could accomplish his legerdemain only by way of a fictional stand-in: the voice of his storyteller. The drama over evil is painted in Marlowe's mind, so as to instill it in our own. Verisimilitude through point of view is the fiction writers' modern road to truth. Seeking light in worlds that seem impossibly dark, they come to crave some of the doubt taken for granted in writing fact. They long to make it real.


© 2022 Mark Danner