Zoo Station – some lessons in historical fiction

by Aaron Cox

by Aaron Cox

I’ve been reading David Downing’s Zoo Station. On the book’s cover, C J Sansom describes it as “an extraordinary evocation of Nazi Germany on the eve of war…” He’s right. Downing has done a tremendous amount of research to create a vivid and dare I say it realistic picture of Berlin in the months leading up to the Second World War.

For me, it offers a few lessons on how to sew historical fact into fiction, an important aspect of any “naturalist” fiction, which assimilates facts and details about the world to create the artifice of being cut from reality.

I am currently working on a novel set during the financial crisis and often have to wrestle with the research. Facts can sometimes appear so extraordinary as to crowd out the story that I am trying to tell. And I get frustrated. The story becomes a retelling of history rather than characters set in history. The narrative invariably becomes clunky, overburdened by detail and opinions from outside the novel. Falling in love with research can turn the whole project into an essay, telling takes over from showing, characters become pawns.

Reading Zoo Station has reminded me about a few things to do with my project. History (I’d include the present and the imagined future) needs to be used with some purpose to carry the story along and to be framed by events and match the point of view of the character (in the sense the literary sense of who is seeing and his/her bent on what is being seen).

In Zoo Station (and I am aware I could use numerous historical novels, Birdsong, Winter in Madrid), historical information becomes something of a character itself within which human characters interact. It plays a supporting role. Getting it right requires finesse and a clear head about the book you are trying to write.

What got me thinking about all of this was a small event in the middle of the book when Russell, the protagonist, buys the Daily Mail. It is worth getting to know a little more about Russell to understand why this is significant. Russell is an English journalist who lives in Berlin. After agreeing to write a series of propaganda articles for a Russian magazine, he finds himself caught in maze of deceit between the Russians, Germans and Americans. His profession as a journalist is important as it gives him a certain lens for viewing details and events in the lead up to war. It also means he read’s the Daily Mail in a particular way. It therefore makes sense when he contrasts the reportage of the German and English press.

He is also a father of Paul, who is German born and a member of the Hitler Youth, a group Russell has deep suspicions about but is forced to tolerate because of his relationship with his son. In addition to his career as a journalist, Russell teaches English to two Jewish teenage girls whose parents hope to send to England. He is therefore a complex and rich character forced to negotiate competing sympathies and we see events from his perspective.

So when his picks up a copy of the Daily Mail (the fact it is available in Berlin at this time is interesting in itself) he reads it not for the headlines, but for what might be interesting to the people in his life.

“This [the Daily Mail] had an article on young English girls collecting stamps, which he knew would interest Ruth and Marthe, and a big piece on the recent loss of the Empire Flying Boat Cavalier, complete with map and diagram, which Paul would love. He saved the best, however, for the very end of the girls’ lesson – a report of a tongue-twister competition on the BBC. Trying to say ‘should such a shapeless sash such shabby stiches show’ soon had Ruth giggling so hard she really was in stitches, and Marthe fared little better with ‘the flesh of freshly fired flying fish.’”*

Rather than focusing on war news, he pulls out normal details, which are poignantly juxtaposed against the horrors to come. It is deftly done. I only wish I could do it so well in my own writing.

Facts or fictions?

Of course, I don’t have that copy of the Daily Mail to validate whether these details are actually correct. And I do wonder how much poetic license Downing took when incorporating these details. I guess doubts about historical accuracy are always going to be part and parcel with a genre called historical fiction, despite the reputation of the author as a specialist on his subject. While the detail may seem plausible, readers can never be absolutely certain of their accuracy. In fact, some argue that the artificial devices for creating fiction (being selective with information, embellishing detail to fit the story, and being limited by the particular point of view of characters within the story) combine to play down its own narrative limitations. The fiction is made to seem too real.

This has been a preoccupation of many 20th century writers – fabulists who have trod the shaky grounds where fact meets fiction. Metaphorical writers who dwell on the subject of how views and perceptions are manufactured through the writing and re-writing of history. Laurent Binet’s HHhH comes to mind. While telling the story of Reinhard Heydrich, he tells the story of how difficult it is to write historical fact without using fiction. Milan Kundera’s books are other examples. Kundera doesn’t mind incorporating essay into his novels and is upfront about the fact his characters are fabricated. Despite this they never seem derivative or pawn-like. Robert Coover’s tome Public Burning fuses real conversations, historical documents, archetypes and caricatures to present the events leading up to the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1952 in a way that screams out that this story is so horrifically fantastical, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Fact and fiction are indivisible. The styles of these writers don’t match my own. But each stylist is brilliant and worthy of a blog at another time.

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