(Pre)historical fiction

by Joshua Mostafa


I am writing this longhand on board a barge, for the second and longer leg of a trip down the Danube via Linz to Vienna, from where I’m catching the hydrofoil to Budapest (where I’m now typing it up, and trying to make sense of the Hungarian kezboard–keyboard!–layout), then a twelve-hour train ride to Bucharest, from where I’ll be able to get out to the Carpathian mountains. These cities are simply waystations for me, stopping points to sleep as cheaply as possible between the stretches of countryside I’ve been photographing and describing in obsessively detailed notes. The old adage about the journey being more important than the destination is literally true in this case.

The primary reason for this journey is to get a feel for the setting I’m writing about, and to escape from the dense tangle of fact and theory that has been clouding my mind and leaving me in a state of near-paralysis. As Claire Scobie writes on this blog: ‘If you research first and write later, there’s a danger of getting lost in the morass of reading and sinking into your sources without trace.’ That’s exactly the situation in which I found myself; the fact I’ve managed to pre-empt the opposite risk: of devising a plot that ends up unusable because of some fatal anachronism, is cold comfort, when I have been writing so little actual story.

So here I am, alternately sitting by the window and scribbling with the buzz of my fellow-passengers’ conversation in my ears (thankfully it’s in German and thus unintelligible to me), and standing out on deck taking photos of trees, which have become less dense and formidable since leaving Bavaria behind. I’m mostly ignoring the riverside houses, charmingly painted in ochre, pale greens and subdued pinks; the old castles, proudly watching over the river traffic, or ruined and brooding; the industrial buildings and rows of pylons, arms akimbo; the Gothic churches, their steeples pointing imperiously heavenward. For me, none of these exist. My characters inhabit a time when the only permanent buildings were the great stone megaliths of old Europe, and the first cities and forts of civilisation, which had not yet spread this far west, and which would be known–if at all–as improbable rumours from distant realms: Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Levant.

Not really historical fiction, then; history doesn’t reach that far back, as there are no historical sources yet – at least, not that pertain to its geographical setting, Europe. ‘Prehistorical fiction’, perhaps; a neologism appropriately ugly for the obscure provenance of its sources: archaeological, primarily, supplemented by various disciplines prefixed with ‘comparative’–linguistics, mythology, poetics. This is what comprises the bulk of those shelves on my bookcase I mentioned in my last post.

This may not sound like promising material for artistic endeavour. But for me, it’s the acting-out of a kind of longing for the ancient past, such as described in Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Bone Dreams’:

Come back past
philology and kennings

re-enter memory
where the bone’s lair

is a love-nest
in the grass

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in my case, this impossible desire to know the ancient past (and its sublimation into an attempt to interrogate it via the lens of fiction writing) began almost immediately on leaving Europe for the so-called ‘New World’. This may be a self-indulgent reflection, but I’m hoping it has resonance for many others who have had a similar experience: to arrive, for example, in the American Midwest (and later Australia) was to be bewildered by these places’ extreme novelty, the historical shallowness; there is space out there that feels unbounded, but little depth in time; or, rather, time in settler societies is perceived as a straight line, beginning with ‘discovery’ (invasion) and rushing forward with a relentless focus on the future.

The cycle of history is absent, or at least inaccessible. Feeling this lack is the opposite of the ‘call of the sea’ evoked by Italian Germanist Claudio Magris in his wonderfully rich book Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea, in a passage I chanced on yesterday:

The ochre and orange-yellow of the Danubian buildings, with their reassuring, melancholy symmetry, are the colours of…the confines, of time. But that blue, which the culture of the Danube has no knowledge of, is the sea, the swelling sail…the voyage to the New Indies. From the inland prison of time one yearns, understandably, for the maritime freedom of the eternal…

But – as Goethe’s dictum has it – freedom only has meaning within limits. So conversely, in the void of New World presentism, I longed for the deep roots of the Old. (Of course, there is nothing really ‘New’ about the New World; but its pre-settler past, though fascinating, is entirely foreign to me, and unusable for a (pre)historical setting, unless I were to blunder into cultural appropriation. Such stories, I feel, are not to be told by me – a member of the invader group – but by writers with a personal, cultural connection to the past that is their heritage.)

I wonder if any such feeling prompted J. R. R. Tolkien, who spent his childhood in colonial Africa, to devote himself to philology, ancient literatures and the devising of imaginary languages and myths of a world based on his profound knowledge of archaic European cultures. Perhaps; though the undercurrent of colonial racism, no doubt unconscious, is also, regrettably, visible in his work, and not just the Hollywood version, with its dark-skinned and dreadlocked ‘Orcs’.

I mention this not to annoy any among his legions of fans (of which I was one, as a child), but because the study of the ancients, and especially the ones that interest me in particular – the speakers of various Indo-European proto-languages (i.e., languages of which no direct record remains, but which have been partially reconstructed via the painstaking work of comparative linguistics) – has often been bound up with nationalist myth-making and racialist essentialism. The most repulsive example of this is of course the Nazis’ misappropriation of various terms and symbols, in particular the words ‘Aryan’ (which properly applies only to speakers of the Indo-Iranian proto-language, not to the western branches of the Indo-European language family) and ‘swastika’ (a conflation of a Sanskrit symbol with an ancient Germanic one that’s probably unrelated). The surge of interest in Indo-European studies, beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing through the nineteenth, subsided considerably in the twentieth, in the face of understandable, though mostly unwarranted, odium. When the discipline revived, it had benefitted from some instructive self-criticism.

I remember being astounded by the idea that both sides of my family (Bengali with some supposedly Persian ancestry on one side, and Anglo-Irish on the other) had, at some distant point in the past, a single, common heritage. This turned out to be a little fanciful: language origin does not necessarily imply family descent, especially in the case of such a vastly expansive language group as Indo-European. Later, I became more interested in the indigenous non-Indo-European languages of Old Europe, that had been almost entirely submerged by the various invasive ones, mostly Indo-European, that supplanted them, except for a few isolated cases like Basque, in successive waves of invasion and imposition: the ‘Kurgan culture’ described by the great Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, for instance; a more recent example is Latin and the Romance vernaculars it left behind. These have no historical trace, and are only visible, in the languages that replaced them, as substrates: mere residues of pronunciation and grammatical quirks, with a scattering of words, mostly names of natural geographical features like mountains and bodies of water. The river Danube I am currently traversing is one such name.

These ancient lost cultures, engulfed long before the advent of writing, are an extreme case of those voices of the past deemed by scholars to be ‘irrecoverable’. As such, they present a great challenge – and, I feel, and even greater opportunity – to the fiction writer.