Rules of historyAug 22nd, 2009 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Ireland
If someone from Bordeaux is a Bordelais, and someone from Cognac is a Cognacais and someone from Lyon is a Lyonnais, and someone from Marseilles is a Marseillais, then why is someone from Nice a Nicois, and someone from Paris a Parisien? Maybe there is a rule about these things, though if there is, it’s hard to fathom. If someone from Manchester is a Mancunian, then is someone from Chester a Cunian? If not, why not? Rules seem to be made by people who make them, without regard for consistency.
Naming the natives of a particular city is hardly a matter of vital importance; would a Bordelais find his life very different if he were instead a Bordeauxois? (My apologies if this is grammatically impossible). In other spheres inconsistencies in rules are troubling. W G Sebald in “The Rings of Saturn” writes of an article he read in “The Independent on Sunday” in 1992.
“The article, which was about the so-called cleansing operations carried out fifty years ago in Bosnia, by the Croats together with the Austrians and the Germans, began by describing a photograph taken as a souvenir by the men of the Croatian Ustasha, in which fellow militiamen in the best of spirits, some of them striking heroic poses, are sawing off the head of a Serb named Branco Jungic. A second snap shows the severed head with a cigarette between lips still parted in a last cry of pain. This happened at Jasenovac camp on the Sava. Seven hundred thousand men, women and children were killed in ways that made even the hair of the Reich’s experts stand on end”. He goes on to quote the horrific details of the killing of Serbs, Bosnians and Jews.
Sebald’s book is part memoir, part fiction, part essay writing. Can the things he includes in the book be relied upon as facts? Did such an article appear in the Sunday edition of a newspaper of record? And, if it did, was it close to the historical truth? It hardly seems likely that a much loved and respected German academic and writer would have included material of such a nature, even in the context of a partly fictional narrative, if he had any doubt as to its veracity.
But who makes the rules about what can and what cannot be said in a story? If a novel contains serious allegations against a group of people, does the fact that it is a work of fiction allow things to be said that would otherwise be open to challenge? Can you say things in a popular format like a novel or film, that would not stand up to examination in a serious discussion? Shouldn’t the rules on what is true be consistent? Mustn’t the truth at one level be the same truth at other levels; shouldn’t television and cinema and novels be subject to the same rules as academic books, especially as these are where many people’s opinions are shaped?
Maybe a Bordelais could be described by some other word derived from the name of his home city, what would not be correct would be to describe him by the name of some other city altogether. The anniversary of the death of Michael Collins today and the news this week of the first declaration of a candidacy for the Irish presidential election in 2011 turns thoughts to the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising. Perhaps by then there will be agreed rules on telling history. There will be different stories derived from the facts; what there should not be is things that were told as if they were not and things that were not told as if they were.