South African novelist Dan Jacobson has penned in Her Story a remarkable tale-within-a-tale, bringing together the generic elements of science fiction, fantasy, fable, and political narrative – drawing them to present questions of identity, history, archival memory, gender and society. The discovery of artefacts pertaining to Celia Dinan in the year 2296 in Hepney becomes a point of interest for the local people as it dates back to the middle of the 20th century, revealing not just details of a woman’s life, but more significantly, offering a glimpse into the interior of a society where individual experience was remarkably controlled by narratives that seemed, otherwise, inaccessible.
That Celia Dinan’s life-story and evidence related to her existence become known more than two centuries after her death does not indicate her ‘cult’ status, but rather, point towards an inexplicable process by which information about her finds its way to an audience so far removed from her. With the passage of time not only does circumstances change, the modes of reception and understanding also undergo transformation. With the onset of new patterns of movement that impact circulation – both human and technological – equations change in measures that shape the nature of society. In societies where individual positions are subsumed by exigencies of surface management, there is only determined fallout, and this, in turn, mechanises the self to make do with arrangements where all ‘liberty’ is placed for appraisal.
In situations of this kind, things are not confined to ‘politics’ or ‘ethics’ but they become part of a larger network of insuperable imponderables that cannot be explained away by recognised systems of logic. In effect, there is movement that reduces the individual to a mere dot in the register of chronicled material, rendered even more precarious by the indeterminacy of what is considered essential. What comes to be known after so long presents, among other things, the change in the paradigm used to approach the question of value, where writing or inscription serves as an engaging agency for the purpose of self-estimation. When Celia’s wire-bound notebooks come to light in 2296, Naoko Kamikatazawa, the chairwoman of the Hepney Local History Association, who is asked to elucidate upon the context of Celia’s writings, titled Her Story, writes: “The very point of the fable is surely the otherness of the world it enabled her to inhabit while she was writing it. Her life was what she wrote out of, not what she wrote about: a difficult but essential distinction for us to keep in mind if we are to do justice both to the author and her tale.” This placement is crucial because it opens up for a late 23rd century readership issues which no longer appear relevant.
When Kamikatazawa situates Celia’s writing within a particular cultural ambit, howsoever she may be historically alert, there is a lack of responsiveness which comes from the fact that she is so far removed from the time Celia belonged to. The additional documents found beside Celia’s notebooks reveal that she lost a boy quite early in life and her subsequent whereabouts remain unknown. The sketchy details present a life of unrelenting trauma brought about by circumstantial horror and apathy in relationships, from which she, so it can be only presumed, sought solace through her writings. In that context, the assessment of it being an alter-narrative may not be entirely misplaced: “Her Story is no more than a fantasy, a reverie, a piece of guesswork, an angular or unexpected filling in the most familiar of sacred tales; it is at once a source of consolation for the author and a fierce repudiation of the wish to be consoled.” The structure used by Dan Jacobson is not a complex one, given that the framing is designed to bring to the reader the worlds of 2296 and 2047, and it is the organised marking of Celia Dinan’s notebooks, even with the retention of the sparseness, which foregrounds the raw energy of the words, making the novel an experience of compelling authenticity where the question of eventual erasure of all human work hits hard.