Monday, 15 September 2014

The oldest story in the world

What is the oldest story in the world? How can we possibly know what the first story was? What would it have looked like? Would we recognise it as a story, and would anything in it mean anything to us today?

These are questions that in all probability cannot be answered definitively, but I'm going to try to make a case here for what the original story was, and then (eventually) talk a little about my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven.

It might seem like an impossible task to go so far back in time - it's even hard to find the original version of stories that we know, or think we know, well. This is something I found out when writing My Swordhand is Singing. I was trying to find the oldest vampire story, the very first one. In terms of printed, published books, it's relatively easy to drift back before Stoker, Le Fanu, and even Polidori and Byron to Ossenfelder's poem The Vampire of 1748, but once we realise that since all these tales were inspired by existing folk stories, it becomes much harder to pin down their origins. I followed vampire stories back to their origins in Eastern Europe, but the truth is that vampire-like stories have been told in most cultures, all around the world, since time immemorial (what a great phrase - "unremembered time").

Looking at really old stories, like Bible stories, we might think we know roughly when and who wrote them - for example, Noah and the flood, until we learn that that story was based on an even older flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, of Mesopotamian legend. This story is based on sources that are over four thousand years old according to some.

The tablet in the British Museum recounting the story of Gilgamesh and the flood.

And once we start to discover that many cultures around the world have some version of a flood story, we might begin to wonder whether that's just coincidence or whether there was a indeed a great flood event, or events, that inspired people to tell these kinds of tales. We might also start to realise that we have probably been telling the same stories over and over again, throughout our history, recast in different ways, depending on the times in which we're living.

There's nothing wrong with that, and nothing so amazing about that, in itself, but I do love the implication of this idea; that stories we know well today have unbelievably ancient origins. Let's look, for example, at stories from Greek mythology, such as Theseus and the Minotaur, or Orpheus in the underworld. We know that the Greeks began to write their stories as long as 2,700 years ago, but once again, that many elements were based on even older stories from earlier cultures. What the stories of Theseus and Orpheus have in common is the notion of a journey into a dark space, in order to confront death. As they say, the Greeks had a word for it, and that word is katabasis. But once again, we find that the Sumerians had beaten them to it; Gilgamesh himself made a voyage to the underworld on his quest for immortality.

What's striking here is that these are not just old stories that we get told in primary school and then, unless we become an archaeologist, anthropologist or Assyriologist, forget all about. The proof of that is to be found in the number of modern retellings of a story like Orpheus in the underworld; from the 13th century Breton 'lay' Sir Orfeo, to what is regarded to be the very first opera, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, through to modern times; Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (which gave us the tune now known commonly known as the can-can), to Jean Cocteau's film trilogy, even to Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge which (with a nod back to Offenbach) the director saw as a being a parallel to the ancient Greek story - the hero has to enter the 'underworld' (in this case, Montmartre during the Belle Epoque) in order to rescue his doomed love.

Why do such stories last? Why are they so powerful? For me, it's all to do with Darwin. Just as species thrive or fail under the pressures of natural selection, so must stories; the good ones survive, the weak ones are told no more. What makes a good story is of course an question for another day, but one essential element must be that they tell us about ourselves in some way. They tell us what it is to be human, to experience human emotion, and so on. It's a fair assumption then that the old stories that stood the test of time are ones which directly related to our experience of being human, to our earliest and most primal emotions and fears.

So what is the oldest story? What does it look like? I'm guessing that it looked something like this:

As we sat around a fire-pit, there must have been some powerful primal experiences that we were driven to encounter, and one of them will have been to venture into a cave. We know that many early hominids lived in and around caves. Our earliest examples of art are the extraordinary paintings of places such as Chauvet, Altamira, or Blombos, where engraved ochre dated to as old as 100,000 years before the present day has been found.

Chauvet, France

Altamira, Spain

Blombos, South Africa
We needed the cave, as a place of safety and of shelter, and yet, venturing in for the first time must have been always been a tense moment of fear; what would be found inside? A cave lion? A bear? Or perhaps, nothing, and a new safe place to camp would have been welcomed.

Think of Theseus venturing into the dark labyrinth to fight the beast inside. Think of the connotations of the cave as being the entrance to the underworld, and Orpheus venturing to confront Death itself. Think of a stone age homo sapiens entering the dark cave, to return triumphant, or to meet a terrible death. That story must have been told and retold, round the fire-pit, since the very earliest days of Mankind.

If you're still with me, here's a video that captures the flavour of The Ghosts of Heaven, one quarter of which is set in the world I have just been describing; a stone age community. Since it's now known that a lot of the cave art was made by juveniles' children and teenagers, the section of the book called Whispers in the Dark takes a young woman as the hero, a young woman who is on the verge of doing something vital to the development of our species. She's about to make the connection between the spoken word and a mark, be it a mark on a cave wall with a piece of charcoal, or in the sand by the fireside. When she does that, she will have made the first steps on the road to the development of writing, and without writing, there can be no civilisation. Writing enables us to do several things; it allows us to pass meaning on to people either distant in space, or in time. It enables us to remember. It enables us to instruct, to educate and to copy: and copying is essential to civilisation too, because without copying we could not build on what our ancestors had achieved before us, something that is the utmost foundation of civilisation.

So here's The Ghosts of Heaven:

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Don’t call it glory

Some thoughts on writing a story for Walker Books' anthology The Great War. This piece first appeared in Carousel magazine.

In 2005 I published a novel set during the First World War; The Foreshadowing. Set in 1916, the denouement of the novel takes places during an engagement of the Battle of the Somme. This, and the novel in general, required me to do a lot of research, but about halfway through this period of reading and travelling and learning about the war, I had a sudden crisis: I don’t know exactly what brought it on, but I know when and where it happened. I was staying the night in a converted monastery in a small town in Picardy, having gone to scout the locations in the novel, when I had a nightmare. In the dream, the souls of the dead from the war rose up and were angry with me: how dare you turn our suffering into your pale fictions?! We were those who died; you will now profit from it! They railed at me and shouted curses; it was a truly disturbing dream.

Awake, the next day, I realised what it meant – I’d been feeling uneasy for some time about what is, after all, the essential act of a writer: to take truths, and make lies of them. Paradoxically, we do that to use those lies to tell truths, truths about life, but in the case of writing about the war, I felt anxious over the way as a writer of war fiction I had immersed myself in an ocean of awful things. As you read about war, it’s so easy to get swept along in the pornography of horror: as you learn about this horrendous battle, or some specific death, as you shudder from the comfort of your armchair about gas attacks, and lice, and amputations, and drowning in mud, it’s easy to become addicted to finding out just one more awful, awful thing.

I finished that book, however. It was too late to do otherwise, and I just tried my best not to glorify any aspect of war, at all, in any way. I also swore that I would not write on the war ever again. I was also immediately distrustful of novels that ‘use’ the Holocaust as a way of engendering absolute bad into the story. What worse horror can there be than the Holocaust? How easy then to give your book the power it might otherwise lack? This is a big subject and I have limited space here; let me just acknowledge that this is a complicated issue, but one that I feel strongly and very uneasy about.
I turned down three other requests to write a story about the First World War for publication in 2014. I finally agreed to Walker’s invitation, thinking it sounded a bit different from other more obvious projects, but even then, I was on the verge of picking up the phone two or three times to pull out.
The essence of the problem, in addition to the easy pornography of horror that I describe above, is this: war is senseless. Episodes of conflict do not have neat beginnings, trajectories, and endings. In short, they are not stories. But to make them work as a story you have to give them all those things. Francois Truffaut, the great French director, famously said, ‘you can’t make an anti-war film.’ What he meant is that any attempt to ‘storify’ a war turns it into something that it isn’t: neat, satisfying, conclusive, even if it’s saturated in horror and anti-war rhetoric. There are perhaps a couple of exceptions; Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is almost without plot. It doesn’t follow a narrative arc; it does as close as job as possible to catching the senselessness of war.
Deciding I had left it too late to let Walker down, the challenge remained of how to write a war story when war is not a story. My solution was to find a way to talk about all these things but still, I hope, have a story that captured the reader.

It’s very important, when discussing such potent subjects, that we don’t get dragged into simplistic and divisive arguments – these are complex issues and complex arguments must be given space. It’s my fear that certain quarters of the media and of government are already using the centenary with relish to foist jingoistic emotions onto us. Feelings that should have died a hundred years ago as the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas got stuck in the mud of France and Belgium. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t remember. We absolutely must remember. But how we remember is vital, and that’s why I chose the title of my story for this anthology: Don’t Call It Glory.