Inaccurate but Plausible

by Jen Paton

There is a scene in David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet where a British captain addresses his crew, men from all over the world. The Captain pauses “to let words trickle into other languages.”

Drawing of the city of rome The novel follows a Dutch clerk, Jacob De Zoet, at Dejima, the Dutch trading island off the coast of late 18th and early 19th Century Nagasaki. Mitchell’s book is full of translation and mistranslation: from Dutch to Japanese, English to Dutch. It is a problem implicit in the historical novel itself, and in history too, to translate the past to the present. It is a long way for meaning to trickle.

In the book’s Reader’s Guide, there is a short essay on historical fiction (don’t be embarrassed to read Reader’s Guides, they are often good), where Mitchell writes of the difficulties of putting words in the mouths of past people: to avoid “smacking of Blackadder” one “must create a sort of dialect – I call it Bygonese – which is inaccurate but plausible.”

One of the hardest things about studying history, and especially the distant past, is trying to understand not just the speech, but also the mindset of the people one reads, and reads about. The people of the past are just as foreign to us in history as in historical fiction. What did it feel like to enter Justinian’s Hagia Sophia? What beliefs, and how true to him, made a man carry a Saint’s bones, or a piece of wood from the ‘True Cross,’ thousands of miles? What made a noblewoman wear a hair shirt underneath her fine gowns? My favorite history book, Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom, is about these questions. It is satisfying for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it makes Other the people of the past in a way that, to me, is more honest than is usual.

Brown’s ‘Western’ Christendom extends from Ireland to beyond Syria, a unity sadly hard for us to understand in 2011. For him, the history of late antique and early medieval Europe is not one of continued Mediterranean unity and economic prosperity, as posited by Henri Pirrenne, but one of “economic infolding” defined by a heterogenous, diverse Christianity, composed of what he terms ‘micro-Christendoms’. It is a world ­not centered on the Mediterranean, but around numerous axes – the North Sea, the Frankish Kingdoms, the Eastern Mediterranean. When Brown describes how the Syriac speaking Arab Christians in Muslim conquered Syria gave their liturgy in high Arabic written in Greek script, we must confront that they did not think of themselves as marginal from Rome or Constantinople. Their faith was to them locally correct and universally valid.

Similarly, in the far West, the Irishmen and Saxons who ‘brought’ Christianity to their peoples were not terribly invested in a real Roman center of power – but rather carried “with them ‘a Rome in the Mind’”, wherein there existed an awareness of other Christianities, as well as a vague idea of their overall universality.

Walking into a 21st century bookshop, its easy to forget that books were critical to maintaining the filaments of power, however tenuous, across miles of land and sea. Before a printing press existed in the West, in Britain in the 7th century, “a steady drift of books …ensured that fragments of a Mediterranean world… now came to rest at the far end of Europe. Each book opened a window down the centuries.” And Brown lingers over the prayer books of the 8th century Germanic tribes, who were at the time in the process of Christianizing: “these books are all well worn. They had been frequently used…they are, in their own way…moving…we are looking at the humble tools which passed the message of Christianity.” In the world of Jacob de Zoet, centuries later, the book is still a critical link to the actually distant center: the novel opens with de Zoet nervously sneaking his Psalter into Dejima, contrary to the Shogun’s law.

Mitchell implies the difficulty of bygonese does not apply as much to third person narrative, but I think the best histories, like Brown’s, disconcert you a bit with their narrative language as well as their source material. Brown’s prose can be overbearing, unmodern: he describes Wilfried, Archbishop of York in the 7th century, as possessing “the mystique of a noble exile, his heart filled with arcane lore…magnetically omniscient…” Cities ‘shimmer’, the Kentish kingdom is as “fragile as a spiders web.” But if this rings heavy to the modern ear, it is also transporting: from Syria to Ireland, the medieval voices to whom Brown listens speak in a prose tinged with what to us is magical. By echoing their language, Brown immerses us in their world – and by so doing, reminds us if its profound difference from our own. In what other language could one tell us how these people felt and thought entering Justinian’s Hagia Sophia: “a space throbbing with faceless, shimmering glory…” If we cannot see that, and we cannot, we can perhaps feel an echo of it in prose.

In this world, most of us will never fully feel that in any space. And we no longer need carry a Rome of the mind, nor even smuggle our most precious books with us across the oceans. The sum total of what we know and can know now seems to float around us in Wifi air. From nineteenth century Dejima, it could take five years for a letter to reach Dutch shores. The heart stops: consider the intimacy, the imagination required to sustain any relationship across such time. So different from now.

How will those writing fiction or history about us sift through all the Gmail, SMS, Facebook detritus to find the real us? But technology brings its gifts. As I write this, I am I am listening to a 1990s recording of a late 14th Century Ciconia round, Ray au Soleil. What a blessing, what a gift, to access so effortlessly some small secret of the past, to so easily hear what someone you cannot even imagine might once have heard. These are gifts from someone else, someone long dead. But I should never forget, that I cannot even imagine him, let alone know him.

The image is of the City of Rome, as seen from “England, S. E. (London or Sheen Priory, Surrey?); 2nd quarter of the 15th century”, according to the British Library.