In his book Untimely Interventions, the venerable Australian-born and USA-based literary theorist Ross Chambers (one of my mentors) discusses what he calls testimonial writing. He defines this as an edgy form of literature that bears witness to historical traumas, calling the dead to life and calling on the living not to forget them. Its subject matter can be any painful episode in modern social history that’s hard to confront, ‘haunting the periphery of our safe and protected world like death at the door.’ Testimonial writing insists on remembering what it would be easier for us to repress. Chambers observes:
‘National cultures, these days, seem increasingly aware of the sense in which they are haunted, both by past atrocities and by the continuing injustices those atrocities have spawned.’
The examples he lists include Germany struggling to deal with its guilt over the Holocaust and with resurgent neo-fascism; France trying to lay the ghosts of its Vichy past; the USA living with the long aftermath of slavery and the Civil War; South Africa facing the legacy of apartheid; Israel confronting the realities of co-existence with displaced Palestinians; Australia and many other countries still dogged by the consequences of colonialism.
Remarking that ‘as the “original” witnesses and survivors age and die, new means of regenerating their witness will have to be found,’ Chambers discusses the instance of Pat Barker’s 1991 novel Regeneration, part of a trilogy set in England during the last year of World War 1. Its storyline testifies not only to the slaughter of huge numbers of soldiers on both sides, especially in trenches of the western front, but also to the difficulty of reporting back truthfully from the war zone to those in England. By incorporating episodes from the real-life wartime experiences of writers Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and depicting their attempts to devise a new poetic idiom that would express without lyrical evasion the horror of this brutal conflict and its lingering aftermath, this novel evokes the condition of ‘perpetually surviving a trauma that is never over.’ Much of the action takes place in a hospital for shell-shocked officers, which becomes symbolic of Britain itself, physically isolated from the battlefront but haunted by its pain despite strenuous efforts to forget.
Chambers sees Pat Barker’s Regeneration as exemplifying the increasingly important role of historical fiction in ensuring we retain the kind of cultural memory that testifies to what humanity has suffered. This insight helps me to understand why in recent years I’ve devoted most of my energies as a writer to novels set in times past, especially to experiences of bitter hardship.