To name your child after another person means to set up a connection from birth. To name your child after a loved one who perished under dramatic circumstances raises the stakes considerably. I was such a child, named after an uncle who died in 1952, a year before I was born. All through my childhood, Uncle Gilbert stared back at me from framed photographs at my grandparents’ place. Standing in the Texas desert, sitting in the cockpit of his training aircraft — always with his kind, dimpled smile. As I grew up, the family resemblances became more pronounced. But unlike Dorian Gray’s, his picture stayed the same as my face developed wrinkles and grooves — a small price to pay for the privilege of ageing.
I knew the stories, of course. As a young boy in World War II, Gilbert refused to seek shelter when the air raid sirens went off over Bonheiden, a small village in Flanders. Much to his parents’ frustration, he ran outside to watch the Allied formations pass over on their way to Germany. He was enthralled with Spitfires in particular, captivated by the elegance of their design. One day, he resolved, he would be flying a Spitfire, and that would be the best day of his life.
In capturing experience we often reduce it. Family photos do not do justice to the chaotic joy of a holiday. Photos of a mountain range understate the majesty of the wilderness. And with every retelling, the story seems to lose energy. It narrows, bleeds dry. Thus family tragedies are reduced to headlines: sparse, banal, trite, anaemic.
In Spitfire, my latest short story, I have tried to counteract this. I wanted to restore detail and energy to Gilbert’s tragedy. I wanted to understand it better while at the same time recording and sharing it. What helped me in the process was a box of memorabilia that I had shipped to Australia after my mother’s death. The box contained photo albums, letters, documents, handwritten notes and a variety of objects. Aviation maps, a pocket knife, meal vouchers, a dog tag.
Much of the material was familiar. It tied in with the stories my mother had told me over the years. Some of it was new to me – it had been passed on to my mother after my grandmother’s death. I read some of Gilbert’s letters home for the first time – wafer thin aerogrammes sent from Canada, Waco and New York. I also found his eulogy.
In an effort to be more direct, I address my unknown uncle in the short story. Second person point of view (POV) is quite unusual in story telling but I thought it appropriate, given the virtual inner exchanges I have conducted with him over the years. And after all we share the same name. Third person POV seemed too detached; first person presumptuous.
The process of reconstructing Gilbert’s life felt familiar: a year ago I had embarked upon a similar process, trying to piece together the last moments of Gilbert’s grandfather, who was killed by German troops in 1914. Fate and Asparagus tells that story. Once again I had erected a small literary shrine to an ancestor. Was I focusing too much on the past? On distant deaths, when every day sees hundreds of equally precious lives perish in Syria, Iraq and other places? I don’t think so. We write about what we know. I also think the weight of numbers can numb us. Focusing on a single life can be a step towards understanding the richness and complexity that live in all of us, the dreams and aspirations that drive us and which, all too often, are cut short.