Notes on Political Fiction
[The following is yet another edited transcript of a self-recorded ethylic midnight rant. I’ve tried to preserve some of its oral, long-winded qualities. I hope you enjoy it.]
Let me take a while to think along with you, regarding fiction and politics. Some of my more general statements could apply to all forms of political art, but all particularities will be literary.
I’m not keen on the idea of the personal as purely political. The private lives of gay and bisexual men in Iran are restrained and deformed by Sharia Law, while I can live and express my sexuality with greater freedom. Many concerns that Iranian homosexual lovers might have, I’m ignorant about. While, in my country, businesses have been socially condemned for denying service to visibly affectionate homosexual couples, even the most tamed manifestations of desire or affection in public, are transgressions of Sacred Law that could cost two Iranian men their lives. The private is politically influenced, but it’s not purely political.
A woman who’s sitting by her living room window, running her eyes up and down the street, suffocated by the concern that her husband might never return from the war, has had her private life transfixed by the political decision to go to war, but her love for her husband exceeds the political, and I’m not willing to politicize the mere act of staring out of windows.
Considering that, a fiction piece treating the cliché of a young woman whose husband is at war will be partially, but not purely political. Of course, this will depend upon the lens through which one tells the story, as well as how the characters are constructed. The affair of character construction and development is particularly complex, in the confection of political fiction.
Let’s say that, for instance, we throw our (spoiler alert:) widow to be, into anti-war activism. Though it’d not my piece of cake at all, such an idea could be written into a beautiful novel, but it’s a likely kernel and excuse for horrendous preachiness.
The dichotomy between “showing” and “telling” (“in literature, one should show, not tell”) applies particularly to political fiction, and to the development of the political dimension of a work. One should not explain the politics but show the politics. One should not have a character that explains the unfairness but show the unfairness. That doesn’t mean that there should be no discussion regarding the forces that sustain the plot, but political works shouldn’t consist of sets of scenes scribbled down to serve as connectors between great speeches.
Some of those who want to write a piece of fiction as an act of activism, have to make a substantial effort in order to “get the message across” without preaching (most likely, to the choir). How do you abstain from infiltrating into the plot, a character that is impossible to hate -their wrongdoings justify their ends-, that happens to spouse all your views? When treating politics, one risks becoming a passion-drunk cartoon version of oneself. A protagonist that’s a wholesale producer of great slogans, and is incandescent with a need for truth and justice, will most likely be of tremendous annoyance. And such a character’s significance relies on their opposition. How do you write their opposition? All great fiction relies on hues. If the general tone allows for a dichotomy of good guys vs. bad guys, how do you keep that from becoming infantile and predictable?
George Orwell’s 1984, perhaps one of our most celebrated and culturally relevant pieces of political fiction, is a brilliant analysis of the human spirit under totalitarianism.
Some of the cultural practices of the government of Oceania are similar to those of the Soviet regime, some others were common to many infamous totalitarianisms, some are the hyperbolic renditions of tendencies common to all States.
The novel’s exposition model of abusive State power rings so true, that the terminology assigned to the manipulation and oppression tactics of the super-State of Oceania has become political slang, and might degrade into a set of easy buzzwords with which to shame opposition. A cultural “dialogue” is not done until someone takes out a copy of 1984 whose spine hasn’t been cracked.
1984 presents the struggle between unmitigated, brutal political and cultural power, and the human spirit. Those with whom we side are not brilliant commentators of their own lives, they are vulnerable, disoriented, and often compliant with the forces that oppress them. It’s, to put it in terms to be expected of a fat, childless aunt of mine: a heartbreaking story. It’s heartbreaking because it is almost heroless.
Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, like all great works of political fiction, do not pay petty lip service to agendas, they are explorations of the human condition that exceed their times.
I tend to prefer narratives that aren’t fueled by politics, being only concerned, in very few instances, with the devastating personal consequences of totalitarianism and its horrors.
One of my favorite examples of this is in one of Vladimir Nabokov’s late and best short stories, (according to edition, either) “Signs and Symbols” (or “Symbols and Signs”). The story treats a trip of a couple of elderly immigrants, to the institution where their mentally ill son lives. It’s his birthday. They are not allowed to see him and give him their gift, for he has just had a suicide attempt, and seeing them could destabilize him. That night, at the kitchen table, alone, the man’s mother looks at pictures of relatives:
“…Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about…”
Picture: John Hurt and Suzana Hamilton as Winston Smith and Julia, in Michael Anderson’s adaptation of 1984.