Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

I never understood that maxim until I began to research The Argentina Rhodochrosite.  During my reading, I discovered one particularly weird story about the “dirty war” of the nineteen-seventies.


This story featured a woman who’d been captured by Videla’s secret government, tossed into prison, and tortured. By itself, that’s rather pedestrian, an unfortunate situation that was repeated thirty thousand times during that decade.  The banality of war, as the saying goes.

But the difference is that this woman fell in love with her torturer.

Now, that was interesting. That was the stuff of good stories. I grew more interested.

As I read on, I learned that this bizarre duo’s emotional tango went even further. Upon her release, the happy couple had married and together left Argentina. They had run off to India or Africa – can’t remember which – and eventually converted to Buddhism. Presumably they were both trying to heal some psychic scars. Eventually they had divorced, and the former torturer had become a monk, while the woman had remarried a rich man. That was all.

And that’s where the story lost me.

It defies all reason. See, the dark secret about human consciousness is that we can’t tolerate very much reality. Real life is messy, it doesn’t feature character arcs, it doesn’t have setups and payoffs, it doesn’t offer dependably comedic or tragic endings—it only has bizarre randomness that leaves us scratching our heads.

Yet what most of us want from our stories is internal coherence, a clear lesson. Because life so often teaches us nothing.

And so, for my own Argentina novel, I cut this woman’s story short. Falling in love with a torturer is about as much as our limited human imaginations will admit.

Think about the irony for a moment. To write acceptable fiction—the one discipline that’s supposed to welcome wild flights of fancy—I actually had to rein in reality, tamp it down, make it more palatable for mass consumption.

I’m not the first writer to notice this paradox, of course. After the movie Scarface opened more than thirty years ago, then-screenwriter Oliver Stone was pilloried for his excessively violent portrayal of a drug-war disemboweling. The scene involved a chainsaw, a captive, and a hotel bathtub.  It’s ludicrously violent, many said, over the top.

What they didn’t know was that Stone had drawn that scene from a real-life drug-gang murder in South Beach, and that he had actually reduced the level of violence. (If you’ve seen that movie, you’ll certainly find that hard to believe, but it’s true. The fictional version still made my stomach churn, and I hope never to see it again.  The Ainsley Walker stories are violence-free for a reason.)

Still, that’s life. It’s not beautiful, it’s not sensible, it’s not even clear. It just … is. If you want sensible endings, read more books, watch more television.

And then, when you tire of the tidiness of fiction, remember that it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

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  1. Pingback: All Books Are Self-Help Books | J.A. Jernay

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