Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Conflict of Dates

The latest in a list of memoirs to be questioned for their factual accuracy is a book that left a deep impression on me when I read it last year is Ishmael Beah's account of his life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone.

A West Australian couple discovered a discrepancy in the dates in Beah's book who were posted to the mine where Beah's father used to work, the Australian reports. Villagers say that the events in the book took place two years later than they were described in the book, and aid workers agree, which would mean that Beah was a soldier for three months rather than two years.

It might go some way towards accounting for why this portion of the book - clearly the most harrowing part - is not dwelt on at greater length - although I personally interpreted this as being because the material was too painful for Beah to revisit at any length.

Beah and his publisher are standing by the book.

If it turns out that the dates are wrong does it terribly matter? Accuracy is extremely important, but for me, none of this detracts from the book which is incredibly powerful and moving, and offers a unique insight into what these children go through.

Do authors always get their dates right in autobiographies anyway? When Rob was here, we discovered a discrepancy in the dates that Anthony Burgess says that he was teaching in Kuala Kangsar in Little Wilson and Big God (he was still there in Malay College in 1956 as the boys who were there then clearly remember). This means that Burgess' biographers Roger Lewis and Andrew Biswell also got their dates wrong. It strikes me as odd they didn't check!


Anonymous said...

Memory is a tricky thing...


Anonymous said...

I think one has to be accurate lah, epscially writing a memoir...otherwise post a disclaimer on the cover! "Portions of events described in this book are not entirely accurate due to my faulty memory"

Otherwise write it as fiction...

Anonymous said...

Disagree with Poppadumdum here. Memory is faulty by definition; it should be assumed. "Memoir" simply means that the author is recalling it to the best of his/her faith and not *knowingly* inventing things, whereas fiction is intentional invention. There is no such thing as objective truth/memory. I don't just say this to be all pomo -- it's borne out scientifically. I read a brief article about how, every time you call up a memory, your brain does not simply restore the same memory afterwards, but creates a *new* file, slightly altered, for storage. In other words, the more frequently you remember something, the more "inaccurate" it is likely to be. But still true to you, because our memories are -- arguably -- always true to us if we feel them to be true, if we are not *consciously* lying/faking.

Anyway -- I thought that snippet about how the brain works was fascinating. Will try to post the link here later.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

True lah - I forgot I only served three months in the war and not two years. Oops, a mistake anyone can make. Well, it DID feel like two years!

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

Actually, Poppadumdum, I know you meant that tongue-in-cheek, but the mind plays strange tricks, especially under extreme stress. I think it's quite possible that a child forced to fight in a war might not only lose track of time -- as many people do in wartime, as full-grown adults are documented to have done in WWII POW/concentration camps -- but that the mind of such a child might also completely blur the lines between truth/memory and imagination. Stranger things have happened. There was a video clip on PostSecret of a man who had a visible scar on his lower lip. When someone pointed it out to him -- even in the mirror -- he simply could not see it. Finally, years and years later, he sees it one morning. He doesn't know why he couldn't see it for ten years, and he doesn't want to know now, because chances are, anything his mind blocked out so completely is not a very happy memory.

Weird, eh? I would multiply the mind's tricksy abilities by a hundred for children forced to fight in adults' wars.

-- Preeta

Monera said...

I've read the book. I thought it was moving and honest. I can't really comment on the date discrepancy, I don't really know what to say about that. But I do believe he had good intentions writing the book, tho'.