“The Best Tool Available”: Portugal’s José Rodrigues dos Santos on Truth vs. Fiction

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

• José Rodrigues dos Santos, one of Portugal’s best known journalists and novelists, discusses the relationship between truth and fiction.

• “If I was doing journalism, I should tell the truth, right?” he posits, only to reveal that sometimes fiction is, indeed, “the best tool available” — the proverbial lie that tells the actual truth.

By José Rodrigues dos Santos

LISBON: The American Super Stallion helicopters landed in the Kuwaiti desert amongst much dust and panache, and the US Marines took position in the sandy grounds in full combat gear, pointing their guns towards invisible enemies hidden somewhere in the horizon.

It was a terrific, almost Hollywoodean, scene. The troops were combat-ready and it was precisely at that moment that the American press officer waved to the reporters waiting on the road.

“You can go now,” he said.

We came to the desert in three buses rented by the Marine Corps and we all felt eager to join the action. Our newsrooms demanded good war pictures. So, when the press officer gave us the green light, the reporters stampeded towards the Marines, looking for the best angles to use their cameras.

It was at that moment, when the crowd of correspondents was running downhill towards the waiting soldiers, that I began to laugh. It seemed a scene out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. There were hardly sixty Marines camped in the sand, and three hundred reporters soon surrounded them with all their camera gear, clicking and filming. M16s against Nikons and Sonys. Who would win?

I decided my day’s story would not be “US Marines combat-ready in the Kuwaiti desert”, the angle surely desired by the people who had brought us here, but “Reporters outnumber US Marines in Kuwaiti desert show for cameras.” If I was doing journalism, I should tell the truth, right?

Wrong. My cameraman got the whole scene on video and, when I went back to my hotel room to view all the pictures before editing, I was stunned by what the small screen showed me. Despite the fact that the reporters heavily outnumbered the Marines, my cameraman managed to film the entire scene without a single journalist showing up in the pictures. Not one reporter was in view.

The story I wanted to tell my viewers could not therefore be told. I had no pictures for that. That episode was a major lesson and, believe me, it provided me plenty of food for thought about my profession. For it was at that moment that I came to realize that, in my journalistic work, I wasn’t dealing with reality anymore. I was a fiction writer of sorts.

So you can see how easy it was for me to move from journalism to fiction. So many other reporters had followed the same path in the past: Ernest Hemingway for starters, but the list is plentiful: Isabel Allende, José Saramago, Amin Maalouf, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, to name a few… I understood now why.

And I understood it better when I began writing novels, for I realized too that through fiction I managed to tell the truth better than through non-fictional discourse. It was weird, but in time that realization became clearer and clearer. How was this possible?

It works like this. All non-fiction writers have to base what they say in sources. Sometimes these sources manipulate the rules under which you operate and trap you in a lie. The story I was forced to tell in the Kuwaiti desert was basically a lie. The Marine’s press officers were aware that newsrooms demanded war scenes and knew that cameramen would focus the soldiers in their videos, avoiding anything that “spoiled” the picture. Like reporters. Just by providing you a combat-attractive setting, they manipulated our work. It was clever, of course, and it was not their fault that journalism is driven by commercially attractive pictures. They just used our motivations to their advantage.

No such problems in fiction. You know something is true and you just say it without having to “prove it”. That’s why I love writing novels. I can express intuitive truths without having to prove them at all. I can travel into the mind of one of the Marines waiting in the desert for the reporters and explain how he sees the scene unfolding before him.

“Stupid crowd”, he thinks, caressing his M16 while the reporters stampeded towards him –- I would write.

I couldn’t write that in a work of non-fiction. And you know what? I would probably be close to the truth in the fictional writing.

So, that’s what I try to do in my novels. When I wrote by new novel, The Einstein Enigma, for example, I wanted to explain what science had uncovered about the existence of God. A lot, I came to realize. So, using the discovery of a new Einstein manuscript with a hidden enigma and enveloping it in a spy story involving cryptograms and Iran’s quest to develop a nuclear bomb, I managed to explain to my readers the amazing discoveries really made by scientists on this major issue.

For fiction, believe it or not, is the best tool available to us to tell the truth.

José Rodrigues dos Santos is one of Portugal’s best known journalists and novelists. He is the author of the international bestseller Codex 632. His new novel, The Einstein Enigma, is published in the United States this week by Harper Collins.

DISCUSS: Can Fiction Be Trusted to Tell the Truth?

READ: José Rodrigues dos Santos’s recent essay about Einstein, Stephen Hawking and the existence of God at the Huffington Post.

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