Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway ( 2007)
A friend told me about this in an email, describing it as short stories soaked in historical research, and mentioning that one of the stories is a set of fictitious journals kept by Charles Sturt. I trekked to the library the same day.
Most of the book’s eleven short stories evoke historical moments: Chernobyl in April 1986, Hadrian’s Wall in ancient times, a Nazi-sponsored quest for evidence of the yeti, Sturt’s exploration of the south Australian desert, a Russian space launch, the Battle of Marathon, and the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. These historical events aren’t there as background to the stories, they are the stories, reimagined from the point of view of key participants. For instance, the Reign of Terror story, ‘Sans Farine‘, is narrated by Charles-Henri Sanson, the royal executioner before the revolution who was kept on in the job to become the man in charge of the guillotine. The real Sanson has a Wikipedia entry, which confirms that Shepard’s story stays close to the known facts. But Shepard doesn’t give us some kind of pedagogical re-enactment – this story in particular takes us to a poignant human reality. The horrors of capital punishment before and after the revolution are graphically presented, and Shepard avoids what might seem another obvious temptation, to editorialise on the evils of state murder. His concern is with the experience of the man, and with coming to imaginative grips with historical events.
Eons ago, on the way to an MA thesis that never eventuated, I read Sturt’s published journals, as well as those of Leichhardt, Eyre, Mitchell, George Grey and Ernest Giles. My thesis would have argued, of Eyre’s Journals in particular, that these books were literary compositions and should be much more widely read. Novelists and poets including Patrick White and Francis Webb, have drawn on the various Journals, and there is at least one anthology of excerpts. Shepard’s ‘The First South Central Australian Expedition’ captures the feel of the original. It does something else as well, as the fictional diarist Sturt is much more forthcoming about his emotional life than the real one was, at least in published form, but Sturt is much more a presence in the story than a jumping off point.
The book is dedicated to the author’s brother, and it includes plenty of brothers and brotherly relationships. Probably the single thing that stops the historical pieces from feeling didactic or info-dump-ish is the overarching preoccupation with relationships between men. Even the one story with a female narrator is set in the predominantly male milieu of the Russian space program, and the relationship between the two main female characters has the kind of competition traditionally found between men. The nerdy scribe overwhelmed by barbarians in ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ has a lot in common with the skinny twelve-year-old who manages to survive the bullying at summer camp in ‘Courtesy for Beginners’. The team sport in ‘Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak’ (surely a science fictional take on American Football rather than a realistic account!) is as brutalising in its way as the work of the executioner in ‘Sans Farine’. Fathers ache for their sons, sons for their fathers. Sons die. Fathers die. Brothers die. Occasionally there’s a woman, but she’s not let in easily. Like she’d understand, anyway.