I’m a product of serendipitous timing; this week’s Time Magazine gives me the introduction I was looking for. In reviewing two new true-crime books, Lev Grossman introduces his reviews with the observation that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, based on a 1959 Kansas farmhouse murder, was the first real “nonfiction novel.” Most of us are familiar with the genre, and for me at least, it’s my preferred choice in fiction reading.
My first real experience with the genre as a young adult was probably from reading Leon Uris and James Michener. Uris’s Battle Cry is fiction, but it’s unmistakably autobiographical and the places and events mentioned are real. Besides, how can you not keep coming back to a book that begins: “They call me Mac…”? Uris’s other early works follow the same pattern, a good yarn based on extensive historical research, but labeled fiction. The better ones that come to mind, and that I’ll re-read every few years are Armageddon (my personal favorite,) Topaz and Exodus.
James Michener did the same thing, creating a fictional narrative based on extensive historic research. Whereas Uris’s works covered the here and now, Michener’s made up the expanse of human time. Where I later had problems with Michener is that his books became SSDP (same story, different place.) While The Source, Poland, Hawaii and The Covenant are obviously different places and people, the formula became too repetitive and apparent after reading the third book. All of them are excellent, but they need to be spaced out. Ten and twenty years later, I had the same complaint about Tom Clancy and anything with Jack Ryan.
Clancy is interesting to me for another reason and leads into my real reason for writing here. Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October opened up the market for the techno-thriller. Following Clancy’s lead, writers like Larry Bond and Stephen Coonts could spend half a page describing in the most descriptively arcane terms some piece of machinery, weaponry or vehicle. Their characters (crosses between Indiana Jones and James Bond without the tux) don’t just don or put on their coats, instead they pick up their Jacket, Field M-1943, or they board a 3,800 ton, Westinghouse gas turbine powered Knox class frigate preparing to get under way. That the frigate may or may not be rocking gently at the pier is incidental.
What happens though, when the story isn’t historical fiction? David Hagberg, a well received author of techno-thrillers, has written a non-fiction work titled Mutiny: The True Events That Inspired The Hunt for Red October. Hagberg’s co-author is a man named Boris Gindin. The book is an account of a not very well-planned and short-lived mutiny aboard a Soviet naval vessel in 1975 (a 3500 ton Krivak class anti-submarine warfare vessel – see, I can do that techno stuff too.) Gindin was the chief engineering officer aboard the ship at the time, and spent most of the actual mutiny time locked up in a storage space with the other officers who didn’t join the Zampolit (Political Officer) who led the mutiny. So what we have is an historical narrative, told from the memory of a single individual, who wasn’t in a position to actually see or hear what was happening during the real course of events. According to Hagberg’s own acknowledgements, Gindin was the only participant he had access to for the story, and there are no primary source materials available.
I’m OK with that if the author is responsible and doesn’t project too much. Where I really began having problems with this book, and maybe it’s less about this book and more about the non-fiction I’m reading today in general, is the paucity of research or evidence of research. I’m going to the backs of these works and not finding indexes; there are few if any footnotes or endnotes, and in this case a fairly diminutive bibliography.
What made me seriously question this book is a short comment Hagberg made in a chapter devoted to Stalin’s purges, deportations and mass murder of the Kulaks and Ukrainians. At the end of a succession of atrocities perpetrated against them, Hagberg writes:
“The kulaks ate their pets, then bark from the trees, even their boots and belts and harnesses. Finally they began eating one another. Sometimes parents ate their infant children” (266).
Obviously it’s disturbing and I was curious as to his source. That’s when I discovered and burned that there was no index. I then went to look for a bibliography and came across one of 35 citations; books and articles. Oh yeah, 11 of them are from Wikipedia. Truth be told, most of them are innocuous and don’t effect historical accuracy; the performance of a particular aircraft or class of naval vessel. However 3 or 4 of them were about the histories of the Soviet era security services – the Cheka, NKVD, NKGB and the KGB. To me it’s fact-checking lite; it’s taking “good enough” and diminishing the veracity of research. I like Wikipedia, but use it as a test-bed against things I know about, or as a starting point for additional information gathering. Its problem is that user-generated content harbors the danger of reducing historical fact to truth by “democracy”. If 100 people say this didn’t happen, and only 60 say it did, then it didn’t happen.
Why did my red lights go off here? Take a look at the The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes. I was given this book late last year and finally finished it in April or May. It’s over 700 pages of meticulously noted personal accounts of life in the Soviet Union from before the revolution until the end of the Khrushchev years. In and of itself The Whisperers merits its own write-up, but I’ll save that for another day. The book is an ode to ensuring the veracity of personal accounts and their places within historical context. In reading it I may have come across inaccurate detail of events, but those are errors and suppositions of the individual account, not the pronunciations of the author as authority. In reading accounts of 40-50 years of systemic oppression and terror in the old USSR, I never came across accounts of cannibalism in the manner Hagberg suggests. My problem with what Hagberg flippantly tosses out is, his account is so brief that it seems common or expected; it loses its ability to shock and make us question to what levels humans must sometimes reach whether as victim or perpetrator.
To me it reinforces our roles as custodians of the veracity of the information we provide. “Good enough” is usually a quantitative qualifier, it also needs to be a qualitative quantifier, meaning it’s good enough that I’d use it too.