Several years ago, a student of mine accused me of bullying her. She looked me in the eye and calmly listed all the things I’d done: singling her out, dismissing her whenever she spoke, turning other students against her, and so on. Her accusations got more dramatic as she went on: I’d instructed other students to kick her during group work; I’d told vicious jokes at her expense. I was shocked. Her version of our shared experiences didn’t overlap with mine at all. I couldn’t understand. She was so earnest. The fact that she was an older student—older than me, even—lent an air of gravity to all she said. Could I have held an unconscious bias against her? Could I have been doing these things without noticing? Could I be this out of touch with my actions and emotions? I wasn’t even aware of disliking this student.
The student wrapped up her accusations by pointing out that I had an evil eye. The left one. It glowed red right before I singled her out. This was too much. At that moment, I knew one of us was living outside of a shared reality, and it was probably her. I later found out that the student had a delusional disorder. I was just one of several professors she accused of persecuting her. Still, I was unsettled. She’d been more certain of her delusions than I’d been of my own experiences. I didn’t believe my memories until they were verified by others.
To some extent, this experience prepared me for the current political climate, in which people in power repeat counterfactual statements with such certainty that they become articles of belief among large sections of the public, in which obfuscation rules the day and presidential cabinet members can coin terms like “alternative facts” with a straight face, in which those caught in a lie simply tell the next lie. To say that we’re undergoing a crisis of truth is both obvious and an understatement.
Enter into this “desert of the real” the late German writer and illustrator Wolfgang Herrndorf’s 2011 novel Sand, made newly available in English by NYRB Classics. Set on the Atlantic coast of North Africa in 1972, Sand begins with a cop (Polidorio), a dead special agent, a mysterious woman (Helen), and a crime: a local Arab man (Amadou) has shot four Europeans. Polidorio is at the station when Amadou is brought in. The evidence against the man is overwhelming, but his protestations of innocence are so unwavering that the cop doubts the evidence and investigates. The first section of the novel whips the reader through a sirocco of familiar thriller tropes and clever confrontations with genre expectations.
The second section begins with a man who has no memory. The man knows he’s involved in a criminal conspiracy, but he doesn’t know who he is or what he’s done. In attempts to flee to safety he encounters Helen. They team up to investigate who he is, what his crime is, and what it all has to do with the four murders and the dead special agent. What separates Sand from the many other novels about an amnesiac seeking his identity is Helen. She’s thrust into the difficult position of having to determine what to trust and how to find truth in a counterintuitive situation. This probably sounds familiar to most of us.
At first glance, Sand appears to have much in common with the novels that postmodern critic Linda Hutcheon dubbed “historiographic metafiction.” Novels like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, which cover huge chunks of time and space and are told from multiple or questionable perspectives. Hutcheon praises these novels for investigating our relationship with history and our political situation while recognizing that historical or political truth remains beyond our grasp. Underlying these novels, also, is a dose of 1960s French philosophy, most notably Michel Foucault’s examinations of the relationship between power and knowledge, which raises questions like: Does truth exist beyond narrative knowledge? Does our familiarity with narrative forms force our concepts of truth into those forms? Is there really something outside of this cave, or are we nothing more than Plato’s prisoners, staring at shadows on a wall and believing the image is the item?
At second glance (and despite the novel being set in 1972), Sand updates these questions for our age of social media relativity.
Consider the similarities between Sand and Thomas Pynchon’s V., a canonical work of literary postmodernism. Both novels follow European operators, spies, and double agents as they impose one empire or another’s will on Africa. In one of the most compelling chapters of V., the son of a British spy tries to understand his father’s role in the 1898 Fashoda Crisis by performing, as Pynchon calls them, “eight impersonations.” The impersonations are mostly of local Egyptians. The main characters of the chapter are European spies whose shenanigans are triggering the crisis, but nothing is told from their point of view. Instead, we see the spies as ancillary characters in the lives of North African waiters, cabbies, art thieves, bartenders, factotums, and train conductors. These North African points of view force Western readers to reconsider their perspective on historical narrative. Typically, a Western explanation of the Fashoda Crisis narrates events from the point of view of European power.1 The impersonations of Egyptians rewrite the powerless into the story of power while also highlighting to the Western reader that Egyptians’ perspectives are being filtered through a white Western man’s point of view.
Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization was published within a couple years of V.2 It is another part of the foundation upon which Sand sits. Madness and Civilization began Foucault’s project of exploring the ties between knowledge and power. For Foucault, knowledge is always produced in relation to power. He uses the example of psychiatry to show how power determines what behavior is normal, natural, and right. Anything outside of these parameters is deviant or insane. But, as Foucault argues, “normal,” “natural,” and “right” are not inherent in humanity. Different cultures over time have different ideas about what is normal and natural. Though these ideas seem timeless, they’re not. They’re constructed by a power structure as a way of maintaining that power. Foucault goes on, in later texts, to argue that everything we know, to some extent, is tied to a power structure maintaining power.
We can, to a limited but significant extent, still distinguish between facts and narratives. Facts are indisputable things.
From there, it wasn’t a huge leap to Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, published in 1979. If knowledge is inextricably tied to power, the next question becomes, how does power shape knowledge in a way that legitimates itself? For Lyotard, power is legitimated by constructing grand narratives. We’re familiar with many of these: men have always run human societies; all great civilizations in history have been built by Europeans; marriage has always been between a man and a woman. The postmodern condition demands suspicion of such narratives. In fact, Lyotard suggests, all of our knowledge is narrative knowledge. This does not mean that facts are not facts. For him, it means that facts are used to build narratives, these narratives become knowledge, and knowledge is used to make truth.
From Foucault, Lyotard, Pynchon, and others, postmodernism grew into a concept in which truth is always questionable. Returning to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which a philosopher leaves the cave, sees transcendent truth, and returns to educate the prisoners in the cave, postmodernism questions the idea of any truth outside the cave, or at least any philosopher’s ability to get outside the cave and see it. This condition provides a loophole for power to exploit. After all, if even the great philosophers are unable to access transcendent truth, then isn’t my truth just as valid as yours? Isn’t all truth relative?
It’s a huge leap from arguing that we should be suspicious of grand narratives to arguing that all truths are equally valid. When Kellyanne Conway promotes “alternative facts” or Donald Trump cries “fake news,” they’re taking that leap. They’re also being disingenuous. They’re not undergoing a metaphysical crisis of truth; they’re just lying.
We can, to a limited but significant extent, still distinguish between facts and narratives. Facts are indisputable things. To return to Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” example regarding Trump’s inauguration, it is a fact that more people attended Obama’s inauguration than attended Trump’s. Indisputable evidence exists to prove this. Now, the narrative you want to construct from that evidence can be disputable. The truth you gain from that narrative is also debatable. But the facts are not. And though we probably can’t access transcendent truth, we can know some things. Even with all of postmodernism’s suspicions of grand narratives, we understand that there is a difference between philosophical uncertainty and cynical pragmatism. Just as I drew the line with my student when I was accused of having an evil eye, we all have to fall back on probabilities and recognize that some things are so hugely improbable that we can dismiss them. In fact, we probably have to in order to function as a human society.
Which brings us back to Sand.
Everything in Sand happens because Polidorio doubts the guilt of Amadou. As I’ve said, the evidence against Amadou is overwhelming. Five people saw him shoot four of their friends. Twenty-six passersby saw him leave the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand. A sandal was found at the scene of the crime. It matched the one sandal Amadou wore when he was caught. All signs point to his guilt. Yet Amadou maintains his innocence without faltering. And surely, as a French cop in a former French colony, Polidorio has seen Arabs falsely convicted of crimes against Europeans. Surely, Polidorio has witnessed police work in which a guilty party is needed and any Arab will do. Thus, all the evidence against Amadou is counterbalanced by all the railroading of Arabs that Polidorio has seen. So, though the facts are clear, the narrative is muddied.
Herrndorf plays with genre expectations here as well. Crime novels are full of innocent men with evidence stacked against them. A novel adhering to standard tropes would depict Amadou as an innocent man and Polidorio as a compromised policeman redeeming himself by solving the real crime. As a catalyst for the tangled plot of the novel, then, Herrndorf’s genre play invites two deeper questions from the reader. First, how does institutionalized racism—or any other deep-seated prejudice—affect our ability to examine facts and develop knowledge from them? Second, how do familiar narrative tropes shape our first interpretation of events?
Rather than answer these questions, Herrndorf drags the reader into the thoughts of a man with no memory. He’s been knocked out and stuffed in the attic of a bootlegger’s barn. He overhears a conversation by four criminals, and he realizes he’s somehow connected to them. As he escapes, he encounters Helen, and the next investigation begins.
“Sand” provides a platform for us to wrestle with our constructions of truth: which facts we choose to accept and which ones we don’t.
Both the man with no memory and Helen further Herrndorf’s examinations into knowledge, power, and truth. While most of the first section shifts through various points of view, the second section is told mainly from the perspective of the man with no memory. This allows readers to witness his genuine loss of memory and his struggle to regain it. It also raises, and this time answers, questions about who we are without our memories. And who we are is the language that we think in, our general disposition, our ability to reason, our propensity for violence, our hunger for love, and our unwavering need to survive. Which isn’t to say that we’re universally the same. All these human qualities differ based on the individual. The man with no memory has a different language, disposition, and so on than I have. But the man with no memory suggests that there is something to us and our identity beyond the stories we tell ourselves about the experiences we’ve had.
As readers, we’re not given the same intimate access to Helen. We’re introduced to her as someone who is pretty and stupid. “With these two words one could send a stranger to the port and be sure that he would pick up the correct person among hundreds of travelers.” But immediately we’re told that Helen is in actuality neither stupid nor pretty. She’s a bundle of contradictions, a difficult person to get to know. Which isn’t to say that she’s a poorly constructed character. Just the opposite. Her elusiveness makes her feel human. Genre expectations would incline readers to see Helen as a potential femme fatale, but Herrndorf’s play with standard conventions—along with his rich characterization of Helen—forces us to resist that easy classification.
Through the man with no memory, the contradictory Helen, and the tangled plot, readers of Sand grasp for any sense of knowledge. Herrndorf doesn’t help us much. We never know whom to trust. We can never tell when characters are being paranoid or when a massive conspiracy is really working against them. Both options seem viable. Perhaps most unsettling of all, the narrator never directly tells us who the man with no memory is. Enough clues exist for the reader to figure it out, but ultimate certainty is withheld. We’re again stuck with probabilities.
Toward the end of the novel, a character is being tortured. The character tells the torturer the narrative he’s constructed of his experiences. As readers, we’ve witnessed these experiences and can trust what he says. The torturer doesn’t believe the story, explaining, “We’re more like statisticians, and the statistics say: there is perhaps a one percent chance that things are the way you say they are … But there is a ninety-nine percent chance that … it’s all bullshit.” As readers, we have to agree with the torturer. Everything we’ve just witnessed is unlikely, and we’ve accepted it all along.
Ultimately, Herrndorf doesn’t use Sand as a philosophical treatise. He published the novel in Germany in 2011 and passed away in 2013, so he clearly wasn’t reacting to current American politics. Still, through Herrndorf’s play with genre expectations and his convoluted plot that constantly teases our sense of uncertainty, Sand provides a platform for us to wrestle with our constructions of truth: which facts we choose to accept and which ones we don’t.
This is more important than it may initially seem. If we’re going to reckon with our current crisis, the first steps have to be a deep introspection about facts and knowledge, how we choose to construct narratives of truth from them, and how they’re being misused as weapons by people in power.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.
- Unlike Pynchon’s novel, the Wikipedia version of the Fashoda Incident (accessed October 6, 2018) ignores the perspective of the Africans and discusses the European colonization unproblematically. Even the name is telling. The events are an “Incident” if you’re in Europe, a “Crisis” if you’re in the areas where the war actually happened. ↩
- V. was published in 1963. The French edition of Madness and Civilization came out in 1961, the English translation in 1964. ↩