Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Strange Truth

Yesterday was the last day of the Auld Reekie’s International Book Festival and also the first day that I made it over there. Illness and other distractions kept me in Weegieland. But my trip was so worth it.

I went with a friend, bumped into my very own brother and then another friend, and together we hid the last remaining copies of Mavis’s Shoe from any prospective buyer. Not on purpose of course and not once we’d realised what our little huddle was doing. Then, after a brief short story in the Spiegeltent, I abandoned the crew and went to hear Ingrid Betancourt.

Has anyone else had the experience of feeling as if everything that is being said is suddenly massively important? It’s a feeling that makes the colours in the room more vibrant and, of course, you could have heard a pin drop. In that little hour I had that experience. Ingrid Betancourt was abducted by guerrillas while campaigning for the presidency of her native Colombia and spent six and a half years imprisoned in the jungle. I didn’t actually learn the nuts and bolts of what happened to her in captivity, only that it was unimaginably brutal, that her captives were increasingly savage towards her and that, despite this, still she hoped to find absolute forgiveness in herself for them. She is small and slight, speaks slowly and with deliberation, though I suspect sometimes this was true because the questions she was asked required her to dwell on memories that continue to cause considerable pain.

Before taking my writing seriously I worked as a counsellor and specialised for some time in trauma. The kind of counselling I offered often took my counsellee to the very centre of their existence. Does this make any sense to you? It’s the kind of place where the big questions of life roam, where people make decisions that change their lives completely, though their outward circumstances may seem the same, and where people decide the most central question of them all: whether to live or die. Hearing Betancourt talk took me into that strange and most important space where life and death decisions are taken. Most of the audience questions were about what had happened since her release, how she had dealt with it, what happened to her family relationships, how she felt about her captors and their organisation now, and so on. These are important questions because, unless you've lived through something like that, it’s hard imagine how you’d sustain yourself during your ordeal or how life might feel on your release. It’s that central question of so many stories, if not all, ‘What would I do?’ Perhaps we want to be reassured that we’d have the same resilience and compassion as Betancourt, that’d we’d survive with our integrity intact, that we’d survive. That we wouldn’t end up either mad or bad. But the truth is that there is no such reassurance. We just have to hope we never have to face those questions and if we do, that we behave in ways we can live with afterwards.

But for me, being reminded of those existential questions made me feel all the more alive. Something vital was being spoken about and that in itself is refreshing, so I bought the book and took it home. Late last night I read the first few pages and had to wonder whether I was as brave as I’d thought. It was the story of one of Betancourt’s many escape attempts and I had to leave her at the point of re-capture as she is surrounded by several brutal men charged with teaching her a lesson. This is not something to read last thing at night so I stopped. But perhaps the other reason I am drawn to this woman’s story is because I want to see the bottom of the barrel of human behaviour. I’m wondering if there’s a safety in knowing just how bad it can get and that people do rise from the ashes as Betancourt appears to have done.

Reading this also raises questions about fiction, truth being stranger and in this case more powerful. Mavis’s Shoe is about a horrendous real-life bombing episode in which thousands of people were killed, although the real figure is not known. Since writing that novel I continued my research into other war zones and then turned my attention to what happens next. All of this research involved reading personal accounts, many of which were gripping, fascinating stories in themselves. So why fictionalise? Why not just tell the stories? But that’s for another post.


  1. I posted a book review at the start of this month. The book was called Everything I Found on the Beach, a novel, hence a work of fiction, and yet it was a most thought-provoking piece of writing because it dealt with the choices that three ordinary blokes make and how it all ends badly. But I began my review with this opening paragraph:

    “What would you do? It’s a simple enough question. When we watch films and read books we read what other people ended up doing. But what would you do? That’s the question that kept ringing in my ears as I read this book. If this was me, if I’d been asked to do what Grzegorz was asked to do or was faced with the opportunity that landed in Hold’s lap what would I have done? I can ask that question because like Grzegorz and Hold (short for Holden) I’m just an ordinary guy. I’ve had a mostly ordinary life and done mostly ordinary things. There’s nothing that special about me. I live my life, watch my P’s and Q’s, mind my own business and generally get on with it.”

    Part of the problem I find when I read about people like Betancourt is that we only see the ‘after’ – not many people are privy to the ‘before’ – where she has proved herself. I imagine there will be a sizeable number who didn’t survive and we will never learn if it was due to some weakness of character or just plain old bad luck. But the bottom line is that none of us know what we will do in any given circumstance. I suppose Betancourt viewed herself as ordinary too.

    I look at the riots in England and I imagine most of the people who took advantage of the opportunity were ordinary too, not bad people, not Hitler-bad, just ordinary, run-of-the-mill guys and gals.

  2. Those non-fiction writers know a thing or two, I tell you.

  3. Hi Jim. I've just figured out how to follow your blog. I'm a writer not a technowhizz.

    I bought Betancourt's book in the hope that I might find out what happened during and possibly before her abduction. I'll let you know how it goes, depending on how much of the book I can cope with.

    I think all people are ordinary. As I used to remind my kids, we all pee and poo. We all do all the other stuff too and we're all capable of being the captors as much as the unwitting captives, given the right situation. I think making heroes out of anyone generally involves fudging the truth in some way.

    Don't get me started on the riots. I think the most shocking thing is the bare-faced hypocracy of the moralising higher ranks. Nothing very surprising though in any of it. Sometimes I think everyone is plundering everyone else. I wonder what happened to the 11 year old girl from a foster home in Nottingham who was arrested and charged with theft and attempted theft. She'd have to be 5 years older for that to happen in Scotland.

  4. Hey Heart. Some of those non-fiction writers should be mixing in a little fiction, or at least playing with the truth a bit if it gets the thing written. I think you know the thing I mean. If you need any help, give me a shout.