|Image by Davide Ragusa|
Mamma Rita tells me that, towards the end of World War II, the people of her pasta-producing hometown of Gragnano saw a parade of American soldiers marching up the main street. Relieved, they cheered the men on from their balconies, which were draped with spaghetti like drying laundry. Then they realized they were the Germans.
That’s so good it should be in a book, don’t you think? Apparently it’s all true, down to the detail about the spaghetti over the railings, because that’s how the locals used to sun-dry their pastasciutta. And the world is positively overflowing with wonderful true stories like this – of misunderstandings, cataclysms, strokes of luck, inventions, love, deceit – infinitely more than there are sheets of paper to write them down on. Or gigabytes of cerebral memory to store them on. (In my case, I may be down to a mere nine or ten kilobytes.)
So why, with the staggering amount of stories available from all sorts of exotic settings, do writers need to write fiction at all? I won’t attempt to answer this many-tentacled giant-octopus of a question. But I will say that it’s a mystery to me how people write fiction in the first place. Think of all the plot intricacies and the weaving of themes, as well as the historical and scientific background research! Not to mention the development of the characters, which may require you to spend an entire day roleplaying your invented protagonist, saying the things they would say and even eating a restaurant meal that they might order.
I mean, where do these people find the energy? I have trouble rustling up the energy to get through my own day, let alone that of a fictitious character. (And that’s after two B-vitamin supplements and a double dose of caffeine.) But more importantly, why? Why go to all that trouble to shape a story and characters when you could just go to Texas to visit your Gramma Essie? All day long, in the screened-in porch over a glass of iced tea, she will tell you about her poor childhood in a one-room shack in Kansas and her doomed marriage to a grumpy ex-cowboy-turned-mailman, whose idea of physical affection was sticking the wet end of his cigar in your ear. What more do you need in a story? And you don’t even have to try to put yourself in your grandmother’s shoes in order to understand her character because, at the end of the day, you’ll be eating exactly what she’s eating for dinner: chicken-fried steak and limp green beans from a can, scientifically proven since the 1950s to be healthier than the fresh variety.
Beat that, fiction! Don’t get me wrong: novels have moved me deeply throughout my entire life. And I know it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. Yet still I can’t fight the nagging feeling that true stories, by their mere virtue of being real, are inherently superior to fictional stories. True stories actually happened to real people in the real world: how much more realistic can you get? How much more interesting can you get?
But people continue to write fiction. In every other aspect of life, if you make up stories and make them sound real, they call you a liar. And I don’t like to lie. I’m a terrible liar, predictably shifting my feet and evading eye contact even in the very kindest of white lies (“No, your new haircut brings out your eyes!”).
I didn’t think my two-year-old was worldly enough to lie until the toilet-training incident last week where he blamed the “big cacca” in his sandbox on a large red dog. Since then I feel the responsibility to pass on to my offspring the moral difference between what is true and what is not true. Besides, his handle on reality is tenuous enough as it is – isn’t it my job to show him the most basic realities of our world? Rain is wet. Monkeys eat bananas. Running naked down a concrete path may lead to more than a skinned knee.
I don’t want my son to think – as some of his children’s books might suggest – that ducks in real life wear gumboots or that an oven may eat the pizza you’ve just put inside it, if it gets too hungry. I don’t want him to think that mail trucks, miniature or otherwise, actually deliver raisins. I constantly find myself saying to him, “Not in real life,” “It’s just a game,” or even “It’s fake.” (“È finto.”) And if Italian had its own word for it – because I speak to my son only in Italian – I might even say, “It’s fiction.” Close enough: fiction and finto share the same Latin root (fingere – to shape, form, feign).
My son has enthusiastically embraced this habit of qualifying reality. Sometimes after jumping on my belly howling like an orangutan, he’ll look at me rather indulgently and explain (in Italian), “This – game,” or even “This – good game.” Once at the aquarium we passed by a display case of fake coral and algae. “Finto,” he pronounced.
Over Christmas, all this put me in a bind over Santa Claus. It wasn’t so hard when the greeting card arrived bearing a photo of his twin cousins sitting on Santa’s knee in the mall. “That’s not really Santa,” I said. “That’s a man dressed as Santa, with a really good fake beard – oh no, hold on, the beard is real!” But then when all he wanted to do was reread Twas the Night Before Christmas ten, eleven, twelve times, I began to fret. Should I tell him that reindeer can’t really pull a sleigh through the sky? That once you go down a chimney, it’s not that easy to get back up it again and to please not try this at home? That it’s not possible to visit all the world’s children in one night, especially those who live in chimney-free, snow-free indigent rural areas of Indonesia? I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to spoil the magic either. Luckily, he didn’t ask.
Next Christmas, however, if my son asks whether Santa Claus is true or finto, I’ll be more prepared. “Honey,” I’ll say, “Santa Claus was in fact a real person, Nicholas of Myra, who lived in 4th-century Greece. He was such a generous man, leaving out surprise gifts for people: you know, like the way you leave little bread crusts in my shoes in the morning? And do you know why we hang a stocking from the fireplace? Well, that’s because once Saint Nicholas gave dowries to three poor sisters by secretly stuffing gold coins in the stockings they’d left out overnight to dry by the fire. Though some people say he threw a bag of gold through the chimney of their house – but I don’t know, that seems a bit unlikely if he could have just as easily thrown it through an open window. Anyway, because of Saint Nicholas, the girls didn’t have to become prostitutes. Gee, wasn’t that nice of him? If you want, the next time we travel to Italy I’ll take you to Bari to see his remains. You know, his skull and the rest of his bones. Would you like that, honey? Would you like to see the real Santa Claus?”