Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Review from History Australia

The following is another archive review of Pistols! Treason! Murder!, by Marnie Hughes-Warrington, from History Australia 5.1 (2008):


According to Iain McCalman, Jonathan Walker’s Pistols! Treason! Murder! is the ‘first true work of “punk history”’. If what is meant by ‘punk history’ is carefully stage-managed historiographical defiance, McCalman’s description is apt. At first sight, the focal point of Pistols! Treason! Murder! is Gerolamo Vano, a self-fashioned Venetian ‘general of spies’ whose life unravelled into a noose in 1622. A closer look at the text and its accompanying website, though, reveals that the work is as much about Walker’s ways of composition and historiography as it is about the shaping and pathology of self in seventeenth-century Venice.

Walker’s acknowledged sources of historiographical inspiration include Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, microhistories ranging from Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre to McCalman’s The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro and Walter Benjamin’s unfinished posthumous work, The Arcades Project. Chief among these sources perhaps is The Arcades Project, for Pistols! Treason! Murder! has the form of an apparently random series of quotations, observations, notes and interviews. Between chapters 16 to 20, for instance, we pass from excerpts from the chief source of information about Vano – file 636 in the Venetian archives – to an analysis of the meaning of ‘honour’ in seventeenth-century Venice, to the purported transcript of a conversation between Walker and two other historians in an Irish pub, to Walker’s testing of Vano’s geography from a report dated 10 April 1622 and eight possible readings of it, to a comparison of the material fabric of Venice with the chief archival sources.

The ‘arcades’ flavour of the book is reinforced by the related website, which offers browsers information on the historiographical and popular cultural sources for Walker’s writing – including songs by Johnny Cash and The Afghan Whigs vivid colour pictures of the textures of Venice and most usefully, ‘deleted scenes’. The ‘deleted scenes’ include the papers Walker published on the project prior to the book, and excluded chapters on the spy as flaneur and intellectual history. These segments of the website, in combination with the marvellous central image by Hallett of the project as a tree of knowledge – and even temptation, given the representation of the link to file 636 as an apple – and the flip book sequence in chapter 28 of the book show that Walker’s project is as much a homage to and revisitation of visual as well as print culture.

Readers more accustomed to the conventional arrangement of biographical material according to a chronological or thematic scheme may find the book and accompanying website jarring. That, Walker would probably insist, is a good thing, for Vano’s activities cannot be rendered coherent. Archival gaps will not allow it, but moreover, as Walker claims:

Each story in Vano’s reports contains or opens up the possibility of another
that undoes or reverses it. Each collapses as a direct consequence of attempts
to shore it up. No possible scenario accounts for everything. As I read the reports,
I ‘crashed’ repeatedly: irretrievable error; the system has shut down. I
could not leave Vano alone, but he offered no answers to any questions that a
respectable historian might want to ask. Instead he demanded a more daring
and radical response, in which obsession itself becomes a strategy (p. 7).

This quote is important, for it highlights the differences between Pistols! Treason! Murder! and The Arcades Project. Many commentators have noted that Benjamin’s Project can be arranged and rearranged, and read and re-read in any number of different ways. Almost entirely absent from Benjamin’s Project are the motifs that individuals use to connect and therefore render their experiences meaningful. In Pistols! Treason! Murder!, there are at least three meaning-makers: Vano, Walker and the illustrator Dan Hallett. The Vano of Pistols! Treason! Murder! is engrossing and somewhat akin to the character of Tony Wilson in 24-Hour Party People, ascribing, erasing and re-ascribing meaning to peoples’ actions in order to place himself in a past that delivers respect and financial reward. In his world, a cough might signal betrayal and the promise of recognition and reward. Or it might simply be a cough. We can never be sure. The patterns of Vano’s rhetoric are intriguing, but ultimately only hinted at in the text. As Richard Evans noted in Kneipengespräche im Kaiserreich, the rhetorical form of intelligence reports is an important part of their meaning, not an obstacle to a ‘real’ individual. A closer look at Vano’s language, and the comparative analysis of other informants might suggest a more conventional individual than we can currently see.

Arguably, Walker is sketched in more depth than Vano: literally in graphic-novel illustrations provided by Dan Hallett and figuratively in his self reflections on his ‘obsession’ with Vano. Early on, for instance, he eschews Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties in favour of the multiple typefaces pioneered in works like Richard Price’s Alabi’s World. In so doing, he affirms a world in which boundaries between fact and fiction and primary and secondary sources matter. Moreover, the historiographical metaphors that he employs – the historian as pathologist and psychic – are now quite conventional and in the latter case, rest upon the problematic reading of historical understanding as an epistemological rather than conceptual activity. Has he, like the protagonist of the Radiohead song, 2+2=5 (the title for chapter 23 of Pistols! Treason! Murder!) succumbed to historiographical ‘doublethink’?

Even if the answer to that question is yes, Pistols! Treason! Murder! is still a stimulating and provocative read. It is punk history, but probably more in the tuneful style of The Jam than the manufactured chaos of The Sex Pistols.

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