I love stories, be they true, plausible or pure fantasy. As a writer, I occasionally plant a new story in the forest of existing tales. The idea for this book came to me in 2009, the Year of Darwin, when Teylers Museum in Haarlem invited me to participate in an exhibition about two legendary ships: Noah’s Ark and Darwin’s Beagle. The former represented the myths of the Scriptures, the latter scientific truth.
‘In the final room we’ll have a theatrical finish,’ the curator promised. ‘We’ll have the Beagle ram the Ark amidships and sink her. What do you think?’
I could already picture the breach in the hull. Later, however, it occurred to me that Noah’s Ark has not sustained the slightest damage from Darwin’s discoveries on the Beagle expedition. The impossible survival story of man and animal on that heaving sea, lapping against the earth, simply makes a stronger impression on the imagination than the young Darwin’s research voyage. Before children have had the theory of evolution explained to them, they have already seen a procession of Noah’s Arks go by – in books and films, Lego or Playmobil sets. Figments of the imagination can nestle so comfortably into reality that they become part of it. The missing room 13 in a hotel. The closure of the AEX index on Ascension Day. Newspaper horoscopes. Everyone in the world raises their children on food, drink and fairytales.
As a small child I was told time and again, wrapped up in the creation myth of Genesis, that the serpent in paradise brought injustice into the world. How? By tempting Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Later, as an adult, I came to see all religions as mythical stories interfering in the lives of billions with ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ – to the point of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
What species of animal would do such a thing? When it comes to questions of life and death, the majority of the world’s population prefer to put their faith in fiction rather than in fact. People are animals who tell one another stories; we are continually telling each other made-up tales to which we attribute significance at the very least, if not literal belief, as if voluntarily imprisoning ourselves in a cage of self-invented stories.
I wondered about the origin of myths which hold such formidable strength that they become mixed up with reality. Did they start small? And how?
Then I had a flash of inspiration. I thought back to the valley of death in Cameroon and saw in it the ideal test for what I wanted to know. The whole setting lent itself to an almost spine-chillingly perfect method of investigating how stories bud and bloom. Just imagine it. The Nyos valley is an orderly, clearly delineated area. On 21 August 1986, on the new moon, between nine and ten in the evening there is an explosion. This is my zero hour, the big bang with which everything begins. Sunrise is as quiet as quiet can be – even the crickets have stopped chirping. Not a word or a sign from the valley floor. Only afterwards does the sound of human voices swell again; in the days, months and years they speak, lament, dispute, speculate and make up fables regarding the valley of death.
I would like to tease apart all, or at least most, of what has been said and written about it. By disentangling the material thread by thread, I hope to discover the words that have attached themselves to the facts, and how they became woven into sentences, metaphors and stories.
A quarter of a century may be short. I don’t expect to find a full-blown, perfected ‘death valley legend’. It must be possible, however, to observe the germination of new mythical narrative strands.
From Choke Valley (Stikvallei, 2015)
By Frank Westerman
Translated by Anna Asbury
First published in The Low Countries, 2015