Several months ago, while doing research for a short story based on the assassination that led to World War I, I watched a BBC documentary, part of a made-for-TV series called “Days that Shook the World.” It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t watching a documentary, but a schlockumentary, a reduction of history to kitsch entertainment. Apparently determined to turn a complex and confusing event into an exciting media narrative, the film makers distorted what happened in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 by presenting it as a prime-time crime drama, with shadowy masterminds secretly directing street-wise hit men. What really happened, insofar as it can be clearly sorted out, was a slapstick series of mistakes that never should have resulted in the death of the Archduke Frantz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the throne of the Hapsburg empire.
The schlockumentary began with six grim-faced young men walking in slow motion toward the camera, ominous synthesizer music in the background, and a growly voice-over announcing “This is the Black Hand Gang, and Gavrilo Princip is its leader.” In fact, there was no gang and it had no leader. Princip and two of the other assassins (Trifko Grabez and Nedjo Cabrinovic) had brief contact with a secret Serbian nationalist organization called the Black Hand, which provided them, two months prior to the assassination, with outdated weapons and minimal instruction on how to use them. The Black Hand seems to have been uncertain about following through with the plan, and showed little interest in it once contact with Princip and his friends had been made. At his trial, Princip testified he was acting on his own, that the assassination was his idea and the Black Hand was merely helping him by providing weapons, a claim that was echoed by Grabez and Cabrinovic. Two of the other would-be assassins were recruited a day before the assassination and claimed they had never spoken a word to the Black Hand.
When the time came to act, the new recruits lost their nerve and did nothing. Grabez disappeared into the crowds lining the street to greet the Archduke, even though he’d seemed fully committed to the project from the beginning and was the only one Princip thought he could trust. Cabrinovic threw a bomb that went off too late, then tried in vain to kill himself with a cyanide capsule that had passed the expiration date, and finally attempted to drown himself in a river that turned out to be only three inches deep. Princip at first failed to follow through on an obvious opportunity to fire the fatal shot. It was only because the driver of the Archduke’s car made a wrong turn that Princip got a second chance. After putting a bullet through the heir apparent’s neck, Princip fired again, trying to kill General Potiorek, the Hapsburg military governor of Bosnia, but his aim was so bad that even though he was only five feet away, his shot killed the Archduke’s wife, who was seated on the opposite side of the car. This was no “gang.” It was a group of starving students who weren’t sure what they were doing.
The BBC schlockumentary repeatedly claimed that the assassination was masterminded by a Black Hand official whose code name was Apis. Though Apis was legally exonerated years later, the film makers chose to ignore this and presented him as a sinister figure wearing a fez, waiting in a darkened room in Belgrade for news that the assassination has succeeded, while ominous synthesizer music again played in the background. The BBC’s version of Apis never says a word. He just stares into the darkness, still as a figure in a wax museum. Why the music and why the hopelessly contrived image? A clumsy attempt to heighten the drama with the Orientalist picture of a menacing background figure, coldly calculating a murder he himself would not commit? Do stereotypes and stick figures work better on TV than complex human beings, or were the film makers (in 2003) trying to make a subtle connection between Apis and Osama bin Laden, capitalizing on still-fresh memories of September 11, 2001?
I was asking questions like these throughout the presentation, as distortions and crude rhetorical effects multiplied. I berated myself for bothering with something that was made for television, and I was tempted to stop watching several times, but I told myself that at some point I might want to write a story about the schlock version of the assassination, in addition to the story I was already working on. This possibility kept me amused enough to keep watching, but I knew my real response was anger and frustration. After all, for viewers unfamiliar with the historical situation, it’s likely that the schlockumentary became the definitive image of an event that changed the course of Western history.
What makes this all the more disturbing is that it’s business as usual, an ongoing feature of the postmodern condition. There are many pseudo-narratives—historical, scientific, religious, political—circulating through our social environment, combining to provide an official picture of the world. Against the spell these narratives have woven and continue to weave, there is a continuing need for counter-narratives, texts which reject the rhetorical devices of mainstream information systems. Over the past hundred years or so, many avant-garde fiction-writers, wary of reproducing the aesthetic formulas mass communication depends on, have rejected the process of storytelling altogether, developing textual strategies that don’t ask readers to suspend disbelief and pretend that black marks on a white page are flesh-and-blood human beings doing real things in three-dimensional spacetime. While I’ve worked with such anti-illusionistic strategies in the past, more recently my approach has been to reclaim storytelling as an aesthetically subversive device, loading my narratives with impossible, absurd moments and imagery, with characters who can’t quite behave like the people they think they are, with settings that call their own existence into question.
In the narrative I ended up writing about the assassination, it’s clear that whoever Gavrilo Princip may have been on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, he became “Gavrilo Princip” once historians began writing about him, and he became a different “Gavrilo Princip” once I began writing about him. In my text, he carries with him the identity conventional histories have given him, but he also functions as a literary character in a psychologically complex situation, trying to sort out multiple confusions in a café where he’s talking to the woman who took his virginity a few days before. He’s desperately hungry, wolfing down sandwiches, trying not to be distracted by the loud discussions all around him, struggling to maintain the semblance a normal conversation while thinking about murder. When he finally shoots the Archduke, he’s not sure why he’s doing it. He’s kept the title page of Kropotkin’s book on the French Revolution in his coat pocket, reminding himself of the anarchist ideologies that influenced him so strongly when he first arrived in Sarajevo a few years before, but he’s having trouble separating what he’s been taught to believe from what he really believes, and unsure whether—at age nineteen—he’s entitled to “really believe” anything at all. It even briefly occurs to him that he’s been set up by the Black Hand to act as a hit man for the Hapsburg Empire, whose military leaders may have wanted the Archduke out of the way, since they thought he was too emotionally volatile to assume the role of Emperor.
What really happened? We’ll never know, and it’s not my job as an author of fiction to provide an “authoritative” version. My job is to write stories that engage readers in worthwhile interpretive problems, to encourage them to question anything that calls itself the truth, especially when such claims are accompanied by the manipulative devices of mainstream entertainment. Of course, assertions like this have dominated literary debates for decades now, and something feels wrong about returning to an aesthetic position I was advocating thirty years ago. After all, it’s not 1984 anymore, and surely the situation for fiction writers has changed in the twenty-first century. But when I get glimpses of the dangerous nonsense that continues to shape our social environment, it feels like 1984 might last forever.
“Days That Shook the World,” documentary series written & directed by Richard Bond, BBC premiere on September 17, 2003.
“Sandwiches,” story by Stephen-Paul Martin, published in Altered Scale #2 (Fall 2012) edited by Jefferson Hansen.