Pete Bowes has recently finished writing his Tamam Shud-themed novel The Bookmaker From Rabaul, a story carefully braided from the skein of loosely connected threads we like to call ‘historical evidence’. When published (in December 2015), it will feature all the Usual Suspectskis of the Somerton Man world – spies, intelligence, betrayal, death, ciphers, and so on – and, on Pete’s past form, should have a rich cast of angular characters doing some kind of crunchy dialogue thing.
But he doesn’t need me to crank out his book PR bullshit for him, he’s more than capable of doing that himself. 😉
What’s nibbling at my trouser cuffs today is the distinction between literary truth and historical truth: doubtless Pete’s book will aspire to the former with a healthy nod to the latter, and that’s basically OK for novelists.
Yet the practical problem with literary truth is that aspiring to it is simply a terrible way of doing history: and this is something that Pete, for all his justified mania for details and (more recently) timelines, doesn’t really seem to get.
Perhaps the crux of the matter comes down to the difference between ‘more plausible’ and ‘more probable’ (this is known as the Conjunction Fallacy, Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” gives some nice examples). In the case of the Somerton Man, literary truth aspires to narrative plausibility while historical truth aspires to genuinely higher probability.
What does that mean, exactly? Well, as an example a little closer to home (if you live in South Australia, that is), which of the following two claims would you say is more probable:
(a) The Somerton Man was killed by someone he knew
(b) The Somerton Man was killed by a lover he had spurned
Kahneman points out that because (b) implicitly contains (a) [i.e. “a lover he had spurned” is a subset of “someone he knew”], (a) is automatically more mathematically probable than (b). And yet many people would judge that (b) is more probable, largely (I think) because it has a certain ‘ring of truth’ to it. By its cautious language, (a) is a bit ‘colder’, a little less human: people have some kind of innate need for stories to embody human values, and so (a) doesn’t quite cut it.
In my opinion, it is specifically that ‘ring of truth’-ness that literary truth aspires to: and the quality of words and thoughts that sets (b) ahead of (a) boils down to its greater plausibility. But that doesn’t make (b) more true, it just makes it a rounder-sounding story.
Agencies, spies, microwriting, uranium at Mount Painter, poison, misdirection, tradecraft, plausible deniability, even Venona: all of these are real historical things. When taken together, they can indeed be arranged to tell a beguiling, plausible story. However, none of them yet connects with the Somerton Man in a way that an historian can genuinely work with: and because none of these individual details yet offers us anything approaching a genuine, probable history, putting them all together at the same time automatically tells a mathematically less probable story – for the more elements you conjoin into a single narratove, the lower the resulting probability goes. Sorry, but that’s just the way the numbers work: I’m just the messenger, me.
For what it’s worth, I remain quite certain that we will, in due course, find out exactly who the Somerton Man was and what precisely brought him to Somerton Beach on the last day of his life. But I also have no doubt that this will come not from assembling plausible narrative macro-hypotheses, but rather from doing historical research the hard way: forming micro-hypotheses about specific aspects of what happened and then painstakingly testing them against the archives.
Pete Bowes laughs when (for example) I wonder if the Somerton Man (with elevated zinc levels in his hair) might have been somehow connected with the zinc trade between Risdon and Port Adelaide; or when I wonder if the Somerton Man might have been connected with the person who sent Fred Pruszinski from Broken Hill to Somerton Beach carrying a rifle in a suitcase just a few days earlier. But that’s probably because even though Pete and I are walking along the same beach, I suspect we’re travelling in quite opposite directions.