Saturday, December 19, 2009

Truth or Fiction

Jennifer Johnston
Truth or Fiction reads like a play from the 1930s, like a Noel Coward comedy of manners. I should like to see it performed, but who shall I cast as Desmond?
Desmond Fitzmaurice, our anti hero, was a playwright, a literary giant and a correspondent during World War 2, but he’s been out of circulation for so long most people think he has died. Until Caroline, a London based journalist, is sent by her newspaper’s editor to Dublin to interview him and write a feature about his life and his work.
The editor’s brief: “Nothing too serious, darling, a spot of gossip won’t come amiss. I will not run the red pencil through a spot of gossip...”
Desmond is thrilled by the interest - he promises Caroline a life story brimming over with ‘lots of sex and some violence’. Cynical Caroline finds this hard to believe. Desmond is, after all, a very old man; ‘she could hear his teeth clicking as he chewed’.
Age has not wearied Desmond; he gads about town in a taxi driven by ‘Phaeton’ whom he insists was his driver during the War. He claims Phaeton was with him when he shot dead a Nazi. But wouldn’t that make Phaeton at least ninety years old, yet still in possession of a driver’s licence?
Already Caroline is not convinced Desmond’s reminiscences are entirely truthful.
The rest of the supporting cast in the drama of Desmond’s life are females who adore him. There is dazzling sharp witted Pamela, his first wife, who gushes about his genius but asks: “You said you wanted me to tell her the truth. What I want to know is, your truth or my truth?”
And sour Anna, his second wife, she is territorial and possessive, she waits on Desmond hand and foot – ‘he was her be-all and end-all, like he had been Mother’s be- all and end-all’. Desmond treats her like dirt; when she falls and must go to hospital, he sends her alone in an ambulance. Callously he says, “If you want to know the truth... I don’t care if she lives or dies.”
While they wait for news from the hospital he tells Caroline about “the woman I really should have married” and how his inattention caused her to pine away and to die of a broken heart. He boasts: “Of course I know I didn’t kill her intentionally. Just my inattention.”
By now Caroline has ceased to believe anything Desmond tells her. She’s convinced he is a fantasist. She thinks he cannot distinguish between the truth and a fairytale. She is exhausted by his unreliable narrative and longs to return to London, back to her normality. She exits, stage left, with a mouthful of exasperated expletives, damning all ‘eccentric Irish people’...
Jennifer Johnston was born in Dublin but has lived in Derry for years. Her father was the writer Denis Johnston who was famous in the 1930s. Her mother was an actress. She started to write at the age of thirty five after waking up one morning and thinking: ‘I must do something with my life.’ Very much a wise decision since her first novel The Captains and the Kings won the Authors Club First Novel Award and subsequent novels have won The Whitbread Book Award and been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
VERDICT: They always say ‘write about something you know. It will make your story convincing’. Well, I am utterly convinced by Truth or Fiction, and charmed by dreadful old Desmond. I hope to be just as shameless a rascal when I am ninety years old.

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