The writer does two things: invents fables or testifies. There are pure storytellers, just as there are storytellers who have only told what they have witnessed, and there are also storytellers who oscillate from one task to another, or who mix the two, in the great ambiguous realm of fiction. There are also those who, when they tell something, tell themselves in passing, and who manages to erase himself completely, the chronicler who almost becomes a documentary camera, the I am a camera with which Christopher Isherwood begins his farewell to Berlin. The chronicle of classic Anglo-Saxon journalism turned that impersonality into a form of mastery. We well know that even the gaze with the greatest effort of objectivity is mediated by concrete interests and by unconscious biases or inclinations, and also that the narrative self of a direct witness can be a necessary attribute of truthfulness. A portion of John Hersey’s testimonial and literary merit in his Hiroshima It was to disappear behind the voices of the survivors of the explosion of the first atomic bomb. After all, Hersey was not there, and therefore her account is made from the testimonies of others. But the documentary value, and also moral, that it has for us if this is a ManIt depends on the fact that Primo Levi experienced everything that counts in person. Auschwitz was a vast field, complicated as a great factory that was also a great city and a methodical hell. The testimony of a single person is very limited, but also very representative, and the uniqueness of his perspective is also one of the reasons for his strength. Historians are concerned with broad panoramas: an individual alone, and also submerged in the often terrible facts, sees only a part of what is happening, but he sees it with an intensity that no other approach makes possible. I was there, says that narrator. What I tell is what I saw.
Legitimately, the witness can also be a fabulator. Imre Kertész was also at Auschwitz, but his narrative decision was opposite to that of Primo Levi. Levi wrote his testimony as soon as he left the field, before the memory began to alter facts that he wanted to have a maximum of precision. Kertész took years to face his memories of Auschwitz, and when he did, he turned them into a novel.
They are, of course, two forms of writing, totally alien to each other, and not because one is fictional and the other sticks to what happened. They are because the first is a writing of immediacy and the other of hindsight. One is written in the present and the other in the past. The place of writing in the present is the chronicle, and also the diary. It is made with fresher materials, because memory has not worked or distilled it. Often its immediacy borders on carelessness and the unfinished: it has something of that sketch that a painter scribbles in a notebook, even of those photos that were taken before, without the automatic correction of the digital. Their lack of formal quality made them truer, trapping the fluid and incomplete of the real better, which is always a bit confusing because it’s happening right now.
The differences and connections between the chronicle and the newspaper have always been very fickle. Just in the days of confinement I have been reading the Berlin Diary from William Shirer, who was an American press and radio correspondent in Germany between 1934 and 1941, and closely attended the rise of Nazism and the early days of the war in Europe. Shirer’s diary contains things that could not have been published in a chronicle, due to censorship, and particular observations that would have had no place in it. Its richness consists, apart from the excellent writing, in that it is both at the same time, chronic and daily, with that originality that arises more than ever when working in formal border areas.
William Shirer’s writing was marked by the technologies of his time: the typewriter, the telephone, the printed newspaper, the radio. The immemorial attitude of a witness adapts at all times to the means that can be most effective for him, because the witness aspires to a practical and urgent purpose: to reach his recipients as soon as possible. In the city of Wuhan, in China, in January 2020, an especially fictional writer, Fang Fang, found herself overnight becoming a still chronicler of what was happening around her, the first concentric waves of a disaster that very soon after was going to cover the entire world. Her writing, of course, was and had to be done in the present tense. But the technology she had added added a peculiar dimension to her confinement journal, to the forced solitude of her testimony. Fang Fang’s diary is a blog, and therefore the loneliness of this type of writing is lost to acquire the dimension of a chronicle. The newspaper, by definition, is private, even intimate; the chronicle is public: the blog is the one and the other, and therefore establishes a new type of communication, which is specific to our time. The intimacy of the newspaper multiplies in the attention of its readers. In the case of Fang Fang, that multiplication is exponential, and it certainly affected the writing itself. What nobody is going to read is not written the same as what thousands or millions of people will read at the same time it is finished. Pressing the publication key takes the same time as closing the cover of a notebook, but the effect is dizzying.
Others have written diaries under dictatorial regimes, and have tried to hide them, because freedom, and sometimes life, was in it. Dictatorships also change their habits as technologies change, and the political police do not have to install hidden microphones in Fang’s home, nor do they steal his notebooks and manuscripts: internet censorship is much more effective, so this woman Courageous never knows if the post she just uploaded to the platform is going to be published, or if it is going to disappear without a trace in cyberspace. Also the forms of harassment of the dissident, who dares to raise her voice, who is pointed out, have been perfected by these new technologies that, according to their first promoters, were to be instruments of freedom and universal happiness. Fang Fang is not thrown stones at the window, nor is he left anonymous in the mailbox, nor does he turn his back on the street, because now there are much more effective gregarious attacks. In a regime in which everyone obeys and in which the only acceptable reality is that dictated by the official media, the work of the witness is dangerous and heroic. A Fang Fang, by his way of writing and telling things, it is seen that he is not an apprehensive person, nor reckless, but as the newspaper progresses we discover the scale of the attacks he suffers, the ideological and patriotic fury that he unleashes his simple decision to tell what he sees. She writes in such a natural way that a Western reader may not realize the courage it takes to say what she says and the danger she is in doing: “I am an individual writer and I only have my own perspective on things. I can only observe and perceive some fragmented realities and concrete people around me. I just record the little details. ”
Nothing more and nothing less. This age is unleashing great theorizations, tempestuous vagueness of philosophers eager to attract attention. Fang Fang prefers to stick to the immediate, with a modesty in which there is a lot of declaration of principles: “I do not offer answers. I just collect what I see. “
It is in this affirmation of the concrete where its strength and danger lie. Political power and propaganda are determined to wrap the events in decorative backdrops, in virtual reality liar projections, with the priority objective of strengthening their despotism and privileges and hiding their incompetence, corruption, errors and criminal oversights. The witness tells what he sees, what other equally committed witnesses transmit to him, which reveals small telltale details. Before the inevitable tribunal of the future, the testimony of the one who saw things as they happened is proof of the accusation. That single woman locked in her house has seen and heard so much, and has reached so many people, that her personal fragility has become an immense fortress, and her story a scandal. For that, something as simple and as old as counting what one sees is useful.
Bearing witness is the foreword by Antonio Muñoz Molina to Wuhan’s Diary. Sixty days of a quarantined city. Fang Fang. Translation by Cheng L. Ning, Aurora Echevarría and Lorenzo Luengo. Seix Barral, 2020