For some reason, my husband and I have both ended up fascinated by narratives. He analyzes them. I try to create them. We talk about them a lot — much to the boredom of some people.
Why do you tell the stories you do? What do you put in? What do you leave out? What do you intend — and what simply slips through?
The two of us are never more rapt than when we’re in a new place, trying to figure it out. The day after we got to Buenos Aires, we went on a short tour of the city. A young woman showed us the neighborhoods, the government buildings, a cathedral, public squares, where the river was now, where the river used to be.
Right offhand, I have to say my husband and I are massively ignorant about the history of South America. Which made me wonder why most Americans go first, second and third to Europe and develop some familiarity with it — while we save the closer continent, part of our own new world, for later trips. Or maybe we never get there at all. Then, if we ever get there, we disagree about how to pronounce “Chile.” (Spare me chee-LAY, por favor.)
Anyway, on the tour, we heard a sanitized version of Argentina’s history — how the country never owned slaves, how it was the nefarious Spaniards who cleaned out the Indians. The Nazi immigration after World War II or the casita of Adolf Eichmann didn’t make the cut of stories our guide wanted to tell.
It’s the kind of narrative that could make you feel a bit culturally superior if you didn’t have a lurking awareness of the U.S.’s own tattered history of genocide against millions of Native Americans, slaveholding Founding Fathers, the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq, just to name a few historical shame pits. (As one-quarter native American, I used to court the whole victimhood rap. Then I learned that my tribe, the Chickasaws, had owned slaves. Show me a slaveowner’s descendant and I’ll show you a very unattractive candidate for victim status. Clean hands in this dirty, sins-of-the-father world are hard to come by. I need to be working on a new narrative of victimhood. Oh, that’s right! I’m a woman.)
The tour ended and we were dropped off in a shopping area of meat-laden restaurants and stores stocking furs, furs, furs for the upcoming cooler weather. In one area, some daring and troubled soul with a blue paint brush had written “PETA” over drawings of cattle.
PETA? Animal rights? Veganism? Will their narratives move from graffiti to the city tours and history books?
Who knows what the sanitized version of our own history will look like in the future? Maybe our descendants will come here someday — to the new, militantly vegan Argentina — and hear stories about how the Spaniards or Nazis were so evil they ate meat and wore furs with impunity. They’ll conveniently forget Hitler was a vegetarian and their vacationing grandparents bought leather and ate red meat every meal they were in Argentina in 2010.
That’s why this whole narrative business is so tricky and fleeting. You clean up a place or a narrative and it just gets dirty all over again. All I know is this: in life, in history books, in blogs, some of the best, most telling stories remain discreetly and deliberately untold.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Still confused about how to pronounce Chile? Read one of my favorite posts about never saying tomahto
I think South America needs a twitter account. History and self-promotion in 134-character posts or less. That’s all the next generation will read, anyway!
I love it, Ruth. You always hit at the marrow. I hate it when world history is intentionally sanitized or changed.
Yet I love my family’s lies…um…stories. We’re storytellers, so the truth often gets colored a lot and passed down to the next generation. I tend to love stories about my ancestors who were freaks, outlaws, or pirates. But even those versions have been turned into myth, and the pirate is portrayed as a lovable character. That’s just a family narrative, though, so it doesn’t seem to hurt the world. We’re not important or earth shaking folks. In reality, my ancestors were probably as boring as I am.
So true, Ruth. History does seem to get spiffed up in later tellings. You will never hear anyone in my family ever say that we are descendants of slave owners (except me), and there is definitive proof. Among my great great Confederate grandfather’s letters from the Civil War is a register of slaves that he sold, including prices. It made me cry the first time I saw actual dollar values assigned to a young man, an old woman, a child. There’s not much that could ever atone for that.
Who knows what the sanitized version of our own history will look like in the future? Well, I do know it will take more than a can of Bon Ami and a good stiff brush to do a proper job on the 21st century thus far.
I have an online friend, a creative Argentine called Montoto, whom I met via my shameful addiction to the game The Sims (another story). He has written to me much about enclaves of Buenos Aires (his home) where the Tango lives on as fervently as in the early 1900s. Recently, his job has removed him to Spain where he is quite unhappy.
One of the interesting things about living in New Zealand is that it is such a young country. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. A blink of an eye ago really.
Whilst the Maori weren’t treated well by the colonists at times, the managed a lot better than most native people around the world. Primarily because they were successful warriors against the Europeans I’m sure there are many nasty secrets swept under the rug, but the secrets aren’t so old and the Maori weren’t annihilated as a people.
Interesting how the tales get cleaned up/changed/misinterpreted/twisted over time. And that leads me to think…how can you ever know the truth unless you live through it? Oh, never mind. What’s true to one is an absolute and outright lie to another. I guess that’s what makes historical fiction so compelling.
Whether it’s world history or personal narrative everything has a story attached to it…whether or not it’s fact, fiction, myth, or a combination of all three…that’s one of the things that keeps life interesting, don’t you think?
Winston Churchill said something to the effect of the victors get to write history.