On the Border of Truth

Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało

“Where there is Truth, there is no Beauty” – wrote Stefan Chwin. Of course, in the poetics of these words of wisdom, there is both provocation and paradox. But it is also clear that the truth in literature is not the truth of facts. Each narrative is a creation, or at least an interpretation, and a fact itself out of context or misunderstood can mislead us and feed us lies. “I cannot lie to you in verse,” wrote Jacek Podsiadło. He was probably referring to the well-known fact that even the way one “lies” contains a hidden layer of truth. The case seems to be different when we seek truth in the context of literary non-fiction: reportage, biography, autobiography. But is it really? Does non-fiction fully deserve its name? What form is actually represented by literary reportage, a genre of which Poland is so proud? We have fantastic reporters, and some of them are engaged in play at the borders between genres. These subtle shifts, departures, and returns – how relevant, how meaningful are they? How much in them is literature, and how much fact? And do these distinctions make any sense? Can building a psychological portrait of someone based on photographs be considered an abuse? Is constructing a story by finding coincidences, recurrences, and “mystical codes” in someone’s life an abuse or an author’s sacred right? Is it is possible to draw a line between literature and reportage? And what about biography? It is so easy to manipulate. Is it not worth saying straight out that a biography is an impossible text? That one needs only to select the wrong interviewees to create a false image of the subject? Autobiography is thus a text that is by definition false, it simply cannot be trusted, it should to read as a plot, a variation, from the beginning. A writer by nature fictionalizes, so his text will never be an innocent text. Perhaps it can tell us more about the mechanisms of memory, the author’s attitude toward his own life, about his interpretations and evaluations of history, large and small? At a time when the life of an author is becoming the property of the media, autobiographies tend to be a form of response to existing, mostly unauthorized biographies. Which obviously does not disprove the accusations of malcontents. In her autobiography, Doris Lessing wrote about the fabrication or construction of memories on the basis of photographs, letters, and other people’s stories: “Telling the truth or not telling it, and how much, is a lesser problem than one of changing perspectives, for you see you life differently at different stages.” Several important biographies have recently been published In Poland: Artur Domosławski’s Kapuściński non-fiction, Andrzej Franaszek’s Miłosz, Joanna Olczak-Ronikier’s Korczak, Piotr Matywiecki’s The Face of Tuwim and Anna Nasiłowska’s Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, aka Lilka Kossak. All were discussed, some aroused our fears and prejudices. In discussions about them, there appeared words like ethics, justice, conscience, and – naturally – truth. But perhaps this is all fantasy, idle talk, perhaps there really is no one truth, we are rankled by a painful relativism because it is something we talk about, a sacred attribute, something fantastic and utopian, a cultural myth? Because who decides that the truth is true? Here the tools of democracy fail, like the sage’s crystal ball. But in any case, where is this sense of meaning when we think we are approaching the mythical limits of truth? Whatever that means.