For much of my life, I have worked on frontiers. Night, fog, armed guards, tension. Walk just a few paces down the snow-covered Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, through a musty East German checkpoint, and you move from a world called West to a world called East. Nothing changes, and everything changes. Or a sandbagged border post between Milosevic’s Serbia and liberated Kosovo: fresh-faced Canadian soldiers pass you tenderly from one darkness to another. But also—and sometimes almost as tense—the frontiers between politics and culture, between continental Europe and the Anglosphere, between academia and journalism, left and right, history and reportage.
I like crossing frontiers. So much is revealed at them. And thinking about “Witness Literature” I want to explore the frontier between the literature of fact and the literature of fiction. I deliberately use the less familiar “literature of fact,” rather than that lumpen term from a publisher’s catalog, “nonfiction.” “Literature of fact”: the phrase is beautiful, and contains the key word—fact. But first, what of its other half, that large word “literature”?
It seems to me self-evident that these adjacent territories of fact and fiction both belong to literature, as France and Germany both belong to Europe. “Literature” is often taken to mean invented worlds. The twentieth century sustained the nineteenth’s romantic privileging of the creative imagination. For a hundred years, the Nobel Prize for Literature was mainly, though not exclusively, awarded to novelists and poets. But who could possibly argue that the works of Thucydides, Macaulay, and Nietzsche, that Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Naipaul’s Among the Believers, are not literature? Wherever the boundary of literature lies, it is not here.
The frontier between the literature of fact and the literature of fiction is open, unmarked. Some very fine writers stray across it quite casually, as one does when traveling in the Masai Mara—no border posts, same shrubland, same dust, same lions, but suddenly you are in Tanzania, not Kenya. These frontier crossings come in many forms. In the reportage of that master traveler Ryzsard Kapuscinski, we find haunting claims that would certainly not survive the attentions of a fact-checker at The New Yorker. (I open his Shah of Shahs at random, and read: “The Iranian Shiites have been living underground, in the catacombs, for eight hundred years.”) With Kapuscinski, we keep crossing from the Kenya of fact to the Tanzania of fiction, and back again, but the transition is nowhere explicitly signaled.
Paul Theroux’s travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, which is full of amusing incidents and wonderfully entertaining dialogue, concludes with an elaborate plea for its own strict, reportorial accuracy. He describes in detail the four thick notebooks in which he wrote things down as they happened, “remembering to put it all in the past tense.” On this railway trip through Asia, he writes, he had learned “that the difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what …