Of course, it’s not actually that simple to forget people and events in real life, or when books are based on real life. Characters have a habit of living on in the imagination.
Dream Land, which is a novel about the return of the Crimean Tatars to Crimea in the 1990s, tells largely true stories, many of them heard from friends. I still visit Crimea, and worry about what is happening there. The characters I invented for the book do have a future that goes beyond the last page. I think Safi, the heroine, is married now, and handing on her grandfather’s stories to her children, who are not all that interested in them. Her brother in the book is radicalised by the hardships and discrimination they suffered as teenagers; I’m afraid he went on to fight against the Russians in Chechnya. I hope he came back. I expect he’s angrier than ever now, campaigning for the rights of his oppressed comrades in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza.
I watched a programme about Palestinian children in Gaza this week. There are some similarities between the situation there and that in Crimea with the returning Crimean Tatars. I was thinking about them as I watched these children talk about what it is like to have to live in a tent with your family, to watch your house being bulldozed right in front of you. To witness the death of your father or your brother, shot by soldiers. To be living every day with the pain of bits of shrapnel in your head.
The future for most of these Palestinian children is almost unimaginable, although they themselves tried to think about it. One wanted to avenge the deaths of his father and brother. Another longed to be free to travel the world. And a third said she wanted to die.
The programme ended, as documentaries and sometimes movies do, with a few paragraphs of information, those bald sentences flashed up on the screen summarising ‘what happened afterwards’. Finishing the story. Those paragraphs informed us that of the two children featured who had leukaemia and were unable to leave Gaza to get treatment, one subsequently reached a hospital in Israel. The other died.
And that’s that. End of the story. Except of course it isn’t, because there are devastated parents and helpless medical workers and border guards just doing their job and furious brothers and opportunist politicians and– and– and–
Stories are the way everyone makes sense of the world. I don’t think it would be possible to live otherwise. The children of Gaza are making their lives into stories – playing games of being stopped by soldiers, of torturing and being tortured, of shooting Israelis. The documentary told a story too, that us lucky viewers could sigh at or feel impotent rage over (and even vent it afterwards on a lovely channel 4 forum for online ranting).
I wish those children were in a book I’d written, so I could invent mostly happy futures for them and then mostly forget about them. But they’re not, and neither are the Crimean Tatar children. In real life, the people I wrote about in Dream Land have built busy, complicated, difficult, unexpected, fulfilling existences for themselves in Crimea. And in real life in Gaza?