Telling someone else's story

I’m spending this weekend in France, enjoying my first ever Bastille Day celebrations uninterrupted by rugby preseason or being on holiday - I know this will not elicit much sympathy.

Talking with my friend’s dad, he said that he’s been polishing up a short memoir, written by his father, detailing his time spent during the Second World War where he was parachuted into France under cover of darkness, with a host of radio equipment, ready to help the Maquis with their communications and pave the way for the Allied invasion.

I won’t go into the rest of the story, it’s not mine to tell, but it sounds fascinating, one of doubtless thousands of untold stories of everyday people performing hitherto unexpected heroic acts in extraordinary circumstances.

My friend’s dad was more concerned with how the story be told, he wanted to do justice to his father’s tale by presenting it as best he could, backed up by some of his own research and fact checking. The sense of fidelity he feels to his father’s story is different to how you feel about your own.

With your own words, you’re happy to obfuscate or elaborate, you can play up or play down your own story, adding and twisting where you like. Of course, you can do this with someone else’s too but it’s clear that in this case there exists a deep, personal sense of responsibility and obligation. When you take charge of someone else’s words you hold a position of power but you also have faith invested in you, real or imagined, that prevents you from really rending the narrative into something else.

I pointed out to him that he could have his cake and eat it - publish the memoir as best he can - backed by research, preceded by his foreword and maybe detail some of the work he’s done to make it readable and accurate, before then using the story as the basis for a fictional tale of wartime derring do, which in some respects it already is.

I read a fantastic book some while ago, Underneath a Scarlet Sky, that did exactly this. The author wrote an ostensibly fictional story that was in fact very closely based on a true one, his research and invention filling in the gaps that time and history had left unaccounted for, conversations that were impossible to remember and characters that may or may not have been exactly as they were.

It remains to be seen where my friend’s dad’s work will go; perhaps, as he said, he’ll do ‘just a bit more research’ forever, never finishing the work; perhaps he’ll create multiple stories, all emanating from his father’s recollections. Wherever it goes, whatever it becomes, I’ll be buying a copy.