by Catherine Bush
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2013
355 pp., $32.95
In his seminal book Representing Reality (1991), documentary film theorist Bill Nichols outlines what he calls “discourses of sobriety,” structures of language and understanding that “regard their relation to the real as direct, immediate, transparent” (4). Wielding institutional – even legal – authority, sober discourses like those of journalism, jurisprudence, and documentary activate procedures that isolate truth and separate fact from fiction. Their special access to reality entails responsibilities and privileges: “through them,” Nichols writes, “power exerts itself. Through them, things are made to happen. They are the vehicles of domination and conscience, power and knowledge, desire and will” (4).
Discourses of sobriety rely upon and reiterate assumptions that Nichols, writing at the tail end of postmodernism, regards with suspicion. Objectivity, the Enlightenment ideal of dispassionate examination as a means for apprehending reality, has been deconstructed if not dismissed as a fallacy. Notions of singular, universal truths have been rejected in favour of polyglot truths, incoherent, mongrel, multiple realities. Human beings are story-telling animals: we narrate our worlds and our relationships to them from our own particular, limited points of view. Our narratives, whether fictional or non-fictional, reveal and conceal, illuminate and distort. All stories yield only partial truths.
Catherine Bush puts several discourses of sobriety into collision in Accusation, a novel about the elusiveness of truth in a climate that is equally legible and illegible. These discourses, and the people who employ them, make their own claims upon reality. Together, they generate fragmentary pictures of a contorted, contortionist world. Sara, a journalist for a Toronto newspaper who writes about migration issues and migrant communities around the globe, arrives in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the beginning of the novel. There to attend a conference, she happens, one evening, upon a performance of Cirkus Mirak— a group of young performers based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who tour and work under the direction of Raymond Renaud, a Canadian from Montreal. Juliet Levin, a former colleague of Sara’s in Montreal who is currently making a documentary about the Circus, introduces her to Renaud. Out of nowhere, he asks her to drive him some five hours from Toronto to Montreal in the middle of the night. Inexplicably, Sara agrees. Before long, she tells this stranger the story of her “tangled history in Montreal” (59): that she was in a relationship that ended after she was accused of stealing a woman’s wallet and using her credit cards; that she was charged and put on trial, let off – but not acquitted – due to lack of evidence.
Sara’s affinity toward Renaud intensifies several months later when she reads about an accusation that has been made against him. While performing at the Sydney Alternative Arts Festival, nine members of Cirkus Mirak – six boys and three girls – defected and applied for asylum in Australia, on the grounds that Renaud “consistently abused them” (88) when they lived and worked under his care. The allegations destabilize Sara’s position as a journalist: she wants to get to the bottom of the story, but she’s inclined to give Renaud the benefit of the doubt, whether because of the intimacy that they shared in her car, or because his condition as un accusé calls to mind her own ordeal. As someone who has been interpellated by the law (to use an Althusserian term), Sara knows something of what it is to be accused. Her past experience gives her insights into Renaud’s present situation, even as it compromises her ability to seek the truth about his case as a neutral, impartial investigator.
Although the two accusations differ in quality and kind, Sara can’t help but conceive of Renaud within the prism of her own history and subjectivity. She resists the impulse “to judge him, either him or his accusers, but him in particular because he was the accused and as yet only accused and in some small way she knew what this felt like” (95). Empathy complicates discourses of sobriety by challenging boundaries of interior and exterior, self and other. To empathize is to understand another as oneself, to identify with the experiences and emotions of other people as coextensive with one’s own existential condition. Journalism makes clear the divide between reporter and reported; a conduit of information, the journalist removes herself from the story as a precondition for attaining truth without bias. Law, too, posits an uncomplicated binary between accuser and accused: it identifies guilt as something exterior to itself, beyond the limits of acceptance by the State. Sara, who internalizes the accusation made against Renaud as though it had been made against her, finds such binaries impossible to maintain. She’s necessarily implicated, and thus unable to separate herself from the story of Cirkus Mirak.
Documentary, the most fraught of sober discourses, underscores epistemological questions of knowability and unknowability that Bush challenges her reader to consider. Comprised of images, documentaries mediate reality: they fashion as much as they record. Upon learning of the accusation against Renaud, Juliet abandons her documentary project and gives her unedited material to Sara, to whom “the footage felt real because it was raw” (101). In many ways, of course, the footage is real: as imprints of bodies and things in time and space, the images have direct relationships to the real. As Susan Sontag puts it: they “do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality” (On Photography 4). Nevertheless, they invite interpretation, signifying differently to different viewers at different times. Sara finds one image – a photograph of a young boy sitting on Renaud’s lap – especially ambiguous. If “photographs furnish evidence” (Sontag 5), then evidence of what? Does the image refer to the appropriate intimacy between a child and a man whom he has adopted as a father? Or to the disturbing bond between a victim and his abuser, a person entrusted to protect him?
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