“Truth is stranger than fiction” – such is the truism. About truisms, one never says that they are stranger than fiction – on the contrary, a truism banalizes truth. It brings out, so to speak, the truth’s unconscious lie, in bringing out the system in which the truth is placed.
However, what I want to know is: why? By what measure is the truth stranger than fiction? In fact, the formalists say that making strange, estrangement, is one of the great devices of art. Skhlovskii defines that strangeness as a form of de-routinization. A part of the world – a tree, say – is given a presence that seems to depart from the routines to which trees in the human world are subject – chopping them down, planting them in groves or along streets, cooling ourselves in their shade, etc. The tree in Tolstoy’s short piece, Three deaths, for instance, is given a more tragic and meaningful death than the two human beings, even though the tree is in no way anthropomorphized.
Turning around the phrase, we have another claim: fiction is less strange than truth. Why? Or rather, How? For fiction is not like fruit, something you pick off the routinized tree, or even the paradisial tree in the Garden of Eden. Fiction is eminently made. And like many products of the modern industrial age, it is made to a certain standard.
A good example of the non-strangeness of fiction stuck itsthumb out in yesterday’s New York Times – although this thumb had shed its flesh in crematoria of Auschwitz, or in the mass graves of any number of the satellite camps. The story begins in 1952, in a heavily Catholic Christian Democrat Italy eager to discover the right kind of resistance to fascism – that is, not the communist, or partisan kind. By 1952 the system of the ratlines by which, in 1945 and 1946, the Vatican hid priests and ecclesiastics involved in the mass extermination of Jews and Serbs in Croatia and helped them escape to Argentina, was a fading memory – or at least, at that moment, an uninvestigated one. In that year, the Bishop of Campania, Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, decided to help out his brother’s family, who were involved in a pension dispute, by describing his nephew, Giovanni Palatucci, as a rescuer of Jews who died at Dachau because of his Christian act. How did he rescue these Jews? According to the original story, Palatucci sent them to a camp in Campagna, where they could be protected by the Bishop.
This story succeeded beyond the Bishop’s wildest dreams. A stream of books and articles attributed a major role to Giovanni Palatucci, who was called the police chief of Fiume. In these books, the number of Jews he saved rocketed to around 5,000. He was designated as one of the “Righteous” by Yad Vashem. He was honored posthumously by the Italian state, and declared a martyr by Pope John Paul. He was on the way to sainthood…
Well, bets are now off on the sainthood. According to a pretty exhaustive report by the Centro Primo Levi, the Palatucci story is a fiction. However, in this case, again, the truth operates as an estrangement device – the truth, that is, about the way the fiction was made. In fact, Palatucci’s position in Fiume was as a functionary who did census work to identify Jews that were to be shipped off to the camps. Far from rescuing 5,000 Jews by sending them to a “vacation” camp in Campagna, there seems to have been 40 Jews sent to Campagna, and many of those were then shipped to Auschwitz. Fiume itself was remarkable for the efficiency of its Judenrein policies – 80 percent of Fiume’s Jews had vanished – up in smoke – by the war’s end. By the war’s end, too, Palatucci was dead in Dachau – shipped there because he was caught trying to make a deal with the British to save Fiume, presumably from the Communists.
These truths remind me of a particular fiction – Leonard Sciascia’s Candido. It is not, in my opinion, one of his great fictions. It is too tendentious. The story line in Candido concerns the way formerly high ranking and committed fascists under Mussolini radically changed their stories in postwar Italy, becoming Communist politicians, Christian Democrat journalists, and the like – but all remembered themselves as resisting fascism. Candido is a satire about the turncoat history upon which the Cold War Italian order was founded. Sciascia’s great topic, in fact, was the rottenness of that order. It choked upon the lie that gave it legitimacy. The lie, here, the banal fiction, made Italian reality, as seen through the lens of the official version, much less strange than the Italy Sciascia tried to get at through his fictionalized truths – his fictions about how easily the truth could be subverted by fiction when the desire was for fiction.
It probably never occurred to the little functionary in Fiume, doing his everyday job identifying Jews for their eventual disappearance, that one day he’d be honored throughout the world for his job in rescuing his material. By now, the weight of the fiction that he did so is such that it will surely survive the revelation that it was all wrong. Too much has been invested in this story. But it will be interesting to see how long it will take holocaust memorials that have honored Palatucci to quietly put away the laurels. As for the larger story: according to the Independent, “Regarding plans for Palatucci’s beatification, the Vatican says it has now asked a historian to look into the matter.”