Friday, December 10, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Dusting off the Pages of History (The Sun-Herald, 2007)

In 2007, when my first book Pistols! Treason! Murder! came out in Australia, I did several radio interviews and wrote a couple of editorials for newspapers. One of the latter was for The Sun-Herald. I don't really know why they asked, but I said 'Yes' anyway. I thought I owed it to my publisher to accept every such request. Moreover, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I could adapt my style to several different publishing contexts, and write copy to deadline. The result is a bit cartoonish (in the pejorative sense of the word). Nonetheless, I think it's a fun piece.

I found the text online here. Thanks to whoever posted it there.

I also wrote an op-ed. piece for The Australian at approximately the same time. I'll put that up too if I can find it.

Sun Herald

Sunday February 25, 2007

He is our first punk historian. And his tale of a masterful Venetian spy has been praised for pushing boundaries. Damn it, Jonathan Walker writes, history doesn't have to be boring.

HISTORY. It's not exactly rock'n'roll, is it? Imagine a typical historian. I'm betting the figure you see in your head isn't standing under a spotlight dressed in black with his eyes rolled back in his head, as Pentecostal tongues of flame crackle around him and the audience roars its approval.

No, you probably have a hazy image of someone in a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, possibly smoking a pipe.

Why is that?

Poetry has Byron and Baudelaire. The novel has Joyce and Kerouac. Painting has Picasso and Pollock. Where are history's iconoclastic heroes?

After all, it too is an art form, or at least a literary genre. Yes, it has its own distinctive rules and restrictions, the most important of which is accountability to sources. But history still has to be written and, as such, its authors must make choices regarding style and form. Why does no one want to talk about that? Or rather why is it assumed that the form in which history is written is unimportant as well as unchanging?

Tradition and conservatism seem built into the genre. The opening chapter of most doctoral theses is a pointless exercise in ancestor worship known as the "literature review", where the initiate abases himself or herself by reciting everything ever written by anyone on their chosen subject.

And whose idea of a good structure is: "Tell them what you're going to say. Say it, then summarise what you've just said."?

Imagine a detective novel that begins: "According to the precedents established by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, this book will set out to prove that the butler did it by reviewing 10 significant clues".

If academic historians humbly aspire only to contribute to the debate or to advance our understanding of some previously neglected topic, popular historians are equally unadventurous. Either they batter the reader into submission with an unending list of minutiae about kings and battles, or they make whimsical claims for the epoch-defining importance of insignificant nobodies.

Both camps stick to established formulae like glue. There is no risk, and no sense of adventure.

I should admit that my book Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise And Fall Of A Master Spy is also guilty of making exaggerated claims for its hero: the 17th-century Venetian spy Gerolamo Vano. But at least I do so with a degree of facetiousness and cynicism.

The difference is that in going in search of Vano, one of history's most elusive characters, I know I'm playing a game, just as he was. In both cases it's a gambling game. He bet his life; I bet my career. In my case, the rules of the game are clear at any given point, even if I am making some of them up as I go along. In Vano's case, matters are rather murkier. The suspicion remains that his game was rigged.

My subject, then, is not just the spy Vano, but rather how Vano challenged my complacency about the proper way in which to write history.

My main source was Vano's surveillance reports: urgent dispatches from the front line of the 17th-century intelligence war. What are they like? Just like the work of a hack Jacobean playwright: melodramatic, cliched, and often completely implausible.

But if Vano's reports lack psychological subtlety and the richness of expression to be found in the plays written by his contemporary Shakespeare, their meaning is still far from obvious. The problem is that Vano's characters were real people, many of whom were arrested and executed as a consequence of his farcical descriptions in which they foam at the mouth and stamp their feet. So why did anyone take Vano seriously?

One answer may be that if you stick with his reports, weird things start to happen. You begin to doubt your own instincts. His reports just go on and on, in a closed loop of cursing ambassadors and treacherous nobles whose exclamations constantly undercut statements made by their predecessors.

The only moments of light relief in this interpretive bidding war - "I'll see your double-bluff and raise you to a triple!" - are intermittent acts of extreme violence.

If Vano was more than a deluded psychopath - if he was, in fact, an author in control of his material - then surely I had to follow suit in writing about him?

But it cannot be denied that Vano is also an extremely unreliable narrator, as his execution for perjury in 1622 suggests.

And the contents of his reports are impossible to assimilate into a traditional narrative for other reasons: they have no index, no cross-referencing and no explanatory commentary. Worse, the file begins and ends without warning, and at some point it has been stripped. What remains, then, is a mutilated fragment.

The archive containing Vano's file is similarly disorganised. Thousands of other documents survive - ambassadorial dispatches, interrogation transcripts, police reports - but they, too, are hopelessly confusing and convoluted.

So I needed a new kind of history to do Vano justice, in which every detail is distinct and potentially meaningful, as indeed it is in Vano's reports. The typefaces, layout, illustrations, rhythm and structure of my book all had to become part of its argument.

The key question is not, "How can I justify this?" Rather it is, "Why not?" Why not use comic strips in a historical biography? Why not use transcripts of imaginary conversations to introduce background information? The challenge is to dramatise the problems raised by the evidence and in doing so escape the cliched succession of one damn thing after another.

Like Vano, I'd rather risk everything than play it safe.

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