‘Is this story true?’ readers invevitably ask. In the first of her BBC Reith Lectures, the double Man Booker prize-winning author explores the complicated relationship between history, fact and fiction
S aint Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true. We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us. History, and science too, help us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.
The glacier knocks in the cupboard, The desert sighs in the bed, And the crack in the teacup opens A lane to the land of the dead
The purpose of this lecture is to ask if this lane is a two-way street. In imagination, we chase the dead, shouting, “Come back!” We may suspect that the voices we hear are an echo of our own, and the movement we see is our own shadow. But we sense the dead have a vital force still – they have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look. There are techniques we can use.