Truth and reality, fact and fiction – travel writer Rory MacLean reflects on the telling and retelling of stories that shape our understanding and reality.
Cycling moves me. When I first came to the UK, my bicycle gave me a sense of belonging in my adopted home. I belted up Knightsbridge in rush hour, wheeled and wove through Piccadilly's traffic, found the nerve to tackle Marble Arch. Another bicycle then gave me Berlin, opening a new city for me, making me a part of it too. I was intoxicated by the scent of lime blossoms along Ku'damm, coasted in the shadow of the Wall, traced Grunewald's sandy paths down to a Havel beach for an evening swim. Each ride gave me a sense of my corporeal existence and of my ability to control my movement through space. Each ride energised and grounded me yet gave me time to think: free-wheeling along empty night-time avenues, gliding in a kind of private ecstasy through the dusk of the Tiergarten or Hyde Park. Now at home in the West Country I often finish working days on two wheels, sailing down narrow country lanes, breathing in wafts of springtime wild garlic, rising up Eggardon Hill with heart thumping to catch a glimpse of the summer sea beyond Golden Cap, never being a passive passenger. For that is the constant, in London, Berlin and Dorset, in daytime and at night. On my bike, I am both alive to the moment and reaching ahead to a destination. On my bike, the wheels turn.
I am a traveller and a storyteller. On my research trips – whether on foot, by bus or on a borrowed boneshaker – I meet people, make observations and collect stories. A parallel journey, equally real to me, is then made back at home. There, experience and memories are drawn together and distilled in a process that is inevitably partial and impressionistic. The interplay of these two realities – on the road and onto the page – creates the opportunity to compose a narrative that combines facts and feelings, a travel tale that's shaped in part by an instinctive need to infuse the moment with meaning and value.
I don't pretend to be an impartial observer. The journeys that I choose to write about are intensely personal. All my books begin with a feeling, a memory, a quest or an obsession. I start each of them by digging into myself. My beginnings are intuitive. I pair emotion with curiosity, the inner world with the outer world. Then I feel myself into other lives.
My objective has always been to evoke empathy. In my work I try to access the internal worlds of living people who I've met or the dead who I want to portray. I imagine myself into their lives so that the reader can better understand them and their time. I use stories to draw the reader into another world.
This dynamic – these interwoven parallel journeys across time and space – compel me to think about truth. On my bike at the end of a writing day, as I pedal past teeming hedgerows, I ruminate on reportage and incomplete field notes. I reflect on the fleshing out of character, on how to make a person live on the page from what was – and wasn't – said in an interview. Over countless rides and a dozen books, I've realised that people tell and retell themselves stories to shape their lives, as nations do to shape their histories. I've understood that accounts of the past – both individual and collective – are created, and used to mould both the present and the future. This is why I have come to see all our histories as constructions, both because of the subjectivity of experience and because the historical record is never complete. The gaps in it – between known facts, the unknown and in the flaws of memories – have always needed to be filled in, at least since the days of Homer and Herodotus. That means every history that we've heard – or told ourselves – involves narration of one kind or another, composed of and for its time, created without true objectivity.
About 2000 years before I wobbled across the front lawn on training wheels, Plutarch wrestled with the elusiveness of the concept of truth. He grasped that every experience could be recounted in an infinite variety of ways. In Parallel Lives he acknowledged the discrepancy, explaining the contradictory interpretations of events in his histories by writing that "some say this happened in the past, others say it was that". William Golding went further, venturing that "courteous historians will generally concede that since no one can describe events with perfect accuracy, written history is a branch of fiction." The cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus then suggested that memory itself can be a "fiction". Her research and experiments found that details of recalled events can be changed, that memories of events that never even happened can be planted in the mind.
My own epiphany depended on the bicycle, in common with some members of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade. As a young writer, I was asked to draft a film script about a single D-Day operation of a dozen of its soldiers, who'd come ashore on the Normandy beaches with bicycles. But when I interviewed the surviving pedal-pushing veterans, they couldn't agree on who had first ridden into Bernières-sur-Mer, who had rushed the pillboxes, who'd patched the first puncture, even though they'd been together for most of the operation. None of them lied to me. All believed that they were telling the truth. Their truth.
At much the same time across the war-torn continent, the travel writer Eric Newby had escaped from a P.O.W. camp (although not on two wheels as he had a broken ankle). He'd hidden in the hills above the camp until spotted by an armed Oberleutnant. But instead of arresting him, the German had proffered a bottle of beer and talked of his love of butterflies, an incident that Newby recounted in one of the most memorable scenes in his masterpiece Love and War in the Apennines. "You don't really believe that story, do you?" confessed Newby's widow Wanda years later. "Of course Eric hid in the hills. Of course there was a German officer in the town who loved butterflies. But they never met. I know because I was there."
Wheels turned. My bicycle crested a hill. A new vista opened before me, the sea sparkling like mica in the heat haze, its gleam mottled by the shadows of clouds swept inland by the breeze. According to historian Thomas Macaulay narrative history must kindle the imagination and "be received by the imagination as well as by the reason…. not [be] merely traced on the mind, but branded into it." Only then can many truths be learned, he said. Only then can we appreciate our truly fluid and exotic pasts.
On my bike, on the road, I am whole and present: face flushed, gasping for breath, worried about paying the rent, as full of complexity and contradictions as the next man. But on the page, some refined version of me evolves; my alter ego perhaps, a proxy if you like. He may have my name, although it's never mentioned. He may have come of age in Canada, or somewhere altogether different. He may be straight or gay, married or single, in the prime of life or queuing at the post office to collect his pension. Only one detail is certain. He – as the first-person narrator – is an everyman traveller who tries to be a conduit, asking the reader not to look at him but to look with him at a world that is so much larger and more interesting than him, promising to tell what I believe to be true.
So, in my books I tell stories. I select and tailor experience into scenes and set pieces. I arrange the action to give the narrative shape and momentum. I develop characters modelled on living originals (unlike those in many novels). I hear – or hear again – their voices in my head. I aim for a greater truth through the use of facts and to make a person, people, place or history more accessible to the reader, more engaging, to enable him or her – and myself in the writing of it – to better understand the human condition. I want to empower, not to weaken, by bridging gaps, by evoking our commonality. Of course I'm constrained by history's obligation to strive for truth (to paraphrase Macaulay again) as well as by my sense of duty to the individuals who spoke to me during my research trips, often at risk to themselves. I will not misrepresent them or their world. I must honour them, and their trust in me.
Perhaps this might make me seem an unreliable narrator. Certainly I am no cool and objective reporter. But I'm not suggesting that fiction is more real than fact. I'm not arguing that reality is relative. Rather I am warning – as a sincere, cycling wordsmith – against the seduction of simplistic interpretation.
Stories bring us understanding, insight and revelation. They can be a solace, a joy, a means of escape. They can fire our imagination and stir us into action. They can also delude us. How then – in this era when mercenary fictions are spun to wage war on reality – can we maintain our trust in the noble, magic illumination of narrative? How should we respond as our behaviour and beliefs are manipulated by those who lack moral purpose, who fire up nostalgic fantasies, peddle propaganda and muddle our vision of the future? For me, it starts with the individual, and his intention, on her bike, at their desk, on the street. It starts with bold humility.
A cyclist is never a passive passenger. He controls his movement through space. She is open-eyed, astute and acutely aware of the many other travellers on the road. As we pedal through this "post-truth" age, we all – as individuals, as nations – need to be truth-seekers, watching the signs, respecting the rules of the road, striking off on new paths, steering clear of hyper-polarised dead ends. We need to call out dishonesty, arrogance and narcissism. Above all we must find the courage to stop falling for simplistic ideas that masquerade as truth. "DON'T LIE!" the Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote in an open letter to the Russian people. "DON'T PARTICIPATE IN LIES! DON'T SUPPORT A LIE!" In bold humility we must strive for integrity, for empathy and for balance.
All of us have unique stories. All those stories – my own, your own – are constructs. By acknowledging that history is a collection of stories, an individual can shape it, own it – and take responsibility for it. For each one of us has an ear for a false note, a nose for a lie. We are innately wary of artifice and quacks. We are capable of sniffing out simplistic fictions and countering the lies. So if we are to "strive for truth", and prevent our history from being co-opted, we must allow all our stories to be "received by the imagination as well as by the reason", to be both interrogated by the mind and "branded" into it. Then we can fix our eyes once again on a destination, on a positive vision of the future, whilst never losing sight of the road we are on. The more we realise that the history we are telling – or reading or hearing – is a story, a truth, the more we can together come closer to the truth, as the wheels turn.
Rory MacLean's latest book Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe is published by Bloomsbury.
Rory MacLean is the author of more than a dozen books including the UK top tens Stalin’s Nose and Under the Dragon as well as Berlin: Imagine a City, a book of the year and ‘the most extraordinary work of history I’ve ever read’ according to the Washington Post. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize. He has written about the missing civilians of the Yugoslav Wars for the ICRC, on divided Cyprus for the UN’s Committee on Missing Persons and on North Korea for the British Council. His works – which have been translated into a dozen languages – are among those that ‘marvellously explain why literature still lives’ wrote the late John Fowles. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he divides his time between the UK, Berlin and Toronto.
“MacLean must surely be the outstanding, and most indefatigable, traveller-writer of our time.” – John le Carré
“This is a tremendous thing that MacLean is creating; a new kind of history, in several dimensions and innumerable moods, that adds up to — across the span of his books — a great and continuing work of literature.” – Jan Morris
“There is, to my mind, no one who writes quite like Rory MacLean.” – Robert Macfarlane