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A Monologue With History

Interview with History by Oriana Fallaci Liveright; 376 pages; $10.95

By Eleni Constantine

ORIANA FALLACI has made a name for herself asking questions of others. Her unmistakeable voice has been heard, over the last five years, in the Italian magazine L'Europeo, in the New Republic, in newspapers around the world, interviewing public figures in politics and the arts. Her newest book, Interview with History, (recently translated into English) collects some of these controversial conversations--Fallaci's interviews have caused uproar on at least three continents--into one volume organized around the theme of the leader in history. The book contains 14 of the interviews Fallaci bagged between 1969 and 1974; on exhibit, in embarrassing nakedness, are the powerful from Henry Kissinger to Alexandros Panagoulis, a dialectical progression that includes Golda Meir and Yasir Arafat, Indira Gandhi and Ali Bhutto, Dom Helder Camera and Archbishop Makarios.

Cosmopolitan praised the book as a marvelous gossip column. But Fallaci claims it is much more; she describes the work in its preface as "a document straddling journalism and history." In fact, her art--and this kind of interviewing is an art--claims the prerogatives of both, yet accepts the responsibilities of neither. As a result, her methodology and the material she gathers raises a lot of questions.

The following is an interview with Fallaci, in which she responded to some of these questions. Held in my imagination, the Fallaci-style discussion took place in a hall of mirrors. In every pane you could see the diminutive, dynamic--her whirlwind manner is famous--Italian, reflected from a different angle. I can't say for sure I ever say her, in all the fragmented images and quotations. But Fallaci was not distressed when I told her this at the end of the interview; she does not believe in objective reality. She repeated what she had said in the preface to her first collection of interviews, The Egotists: "I don't believe in objectivity. Objectivity is hypocrisy, presumption, since it starts from the supposition that the person who is providing a piece of news or profile has discovered Truth with a capital T. In fact, when one writes a profile, there exists, there can only exist, the honesty of the person who furnishes the piece of news or the profile."

I wasn't convinced. But she engaged me; you only have to read the book to see how engaging she can be. If she uses phrases like "And, listen" or "Truly, then" when addressing the reader in the preface, imagine what she was like in this echoing, reflecting space where we spoke. Despite my reservations, I found myself fighting the sort of verbal duel to which Fallaci loves to challenge others, and what is more, fighting with her own weapons: taking things she has said in different situations and putting them together to formulate her answer, attacking her to get a response, creating for her a persona, making her response fit my questions. But unlike Fallaci, I admit that I have created the woman I describe--from my impressions, my imaginings and her own statements, taken out of context. The problem with Fallaci's book is that it pretends to portray real, politically influential people, as they are, using methods like these; facile methods which are only appropriate to analyses in the imagination.

QUESTION: In your first book Gli Antipatici (The Obnoxious)--which was retitled The Egotists in the English translation--you said: "I am not famous, and consequently I am not antipatica." Now you have become famous, in Italy, in America, in high places, aren't you afraid that you, too, may have become obnoxious and egotistical?

Oriana Fallaci: You'd be surprised how limited the fame of any journalist, especially a foreigner, is, in America. But about success. As I said when interviewed by Esquire, "There's nothing that changes one like success. Success, if you're not stupid, is a marvelous way to grow up. And power. Of course. You lose your complexes and become more secure. Success and power. You grow up if you can use them well.

Q: It seems as if that contradicts what you state in your preface to Interview with History. You say, "I do not understand power, the mechanism by which men or women feel themselves invested or become invested with the right to rule over others and punish them if they do not obey. Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president...I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon." As a journalist and writer, you wield a very real power, and I think you understand that.

O.F.: You sound as absurd and insulting as the Pakistanis who kept telling me that the lives of 600 million people were in my hands. Just because Ghandi refused to sign a peace agreement with Bhutto because of some things Bhutto said in an interview I had with him. I replied--you can read this in my book--that my hands were too small to contain that many people.

Q: But you flaunt your power throughout your book, Ms. Fallaci. In fact, it seems you or your publishers sent the complete text of the Bhutto interview to Ms. Ghandi, whom you supported at the time, and you describe the final outcome--Ghandi's triumph and Bhutto's embarrassment--with arrogant glee.

O.F.: I am proud of any part I may have had in combating corruption and oppression. I care about freedom, the poor. I said once that "I prefer to be with people who...are beautiful. But I hate those who smell good and are beautiful and I am with those who smell bad and are poor." Interview with History is a record of my efforts to fight for freedom.

Q: Your rhetoric is impressive, but what your interviews show is that, in practice, "fighting for freedom" means making people you support look good, and those you dislike look bad. Actually, the most interesting parts of your book are the introductions to each interview, in which you describe your perceptions of the character. These descriptions are sensitive and poetic, especially when the interviewee is someone you liked, or admired: Golda Meir, Dom Camara, Alexandros Panagoulis--people you can portray as heroic. But these sections of the book are also those where you type of journalism reveals itself for what it is: fiction. Each of the 14 people in Interview with History is introduced so that the reader sees the individual as a symbol of something much bigger. Your technique encourages the reader to forget that you invented any symbolism you see. Then you proceed to back up your perception with "fact" through the interviews. It's all just too neat, everyone you interview fits just too perfectly into your larger structure.

O.F.: I'm transcribing what they said; it's all recorded on tape.

Q: If you intended to be objective, your method would prevent it, since it involves so many processes of editing and arranging. Clearly, you realize at least part of this problem. You said in The Egotists, "What 0you hear when you have a face before you is never what you hear when you have before you a winding tape." There's even more difference between what you hear--a voice whose intonations tell you how to interpret what they say--and what the reader sees in print. And what about the process of selection? When, for example, Kissinger says in your interview (speaking of negotiations with Hanoi), "The fact is that...Well, for months we have been conducting these negotiations and you reporters haven't believed us." What is the fact? The reader can't tell what you left out. It's not fair to ask history--as you do--to judge these people on the basis of these interviews.

But you don't even try to present these individuals in all their complexity; you prefer intellectual games of symbolism and pattern. When you start encouraging your interviewees to identify with their opponents, there's not much in your portraits that is acceptable as truth. Aren't you doing what you accuse Kissinger of doing: being an imbroglione, someone who toys with people?

O.F.: You Americans seem to value objectivity. I use the words "honest and correct." Besides, my methods get people to say things other journalists can't get them to say; I get at the hidden truths.

Q.: You are clearly no less skilled at manipulating live conversation than you are at manipulating tapes. Occasionally the politicians you interview make statements that, seen in the light of past or present political events, seem truly astounding.

O.F.: Shah Pahlavi, for example, who said to me, in 1973, before the great oil price wars,"...it's only fair that you (Europeans) should have to pay more for oil. Let's say...ten times more." A little later, he denied this statement. Then he went ahead and raised the price.

Q.: But this sort of thing is only significant seen in hindsight; after all, the Shah makes a lot of unfulfilled threats in the same paragraph. Your techniques tend to elicit statements that may or may not have any relevance to the way these political figures act, statements that pamper to unsubstantive psychohistory.

O.F.: Listen, the book has no such ambitions. I state, in the first sentence, "This book does not claim to be anything but what it is: I mean a direct witness to fourteen political figures of contemporary history."

Q: Now I'm going to put you a brutal question, Ms. Fallaci. How can you claim the right to be even a witness of history if you reject the responsibility of objective reporting?

O.F.: You're really trying to get me with my own sword, aren't you. You've even adopted my phrase, that one about the brutal question. But don't you have a proverb, in English, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?" For all your vulgar attacks, you seem to have read my interviews closely; they fascinated you, I can see from these questions.

Q.: Your interviews are fascinating, Ms. Fallaci, fascinating and seductive. So are you; the interviews reflect your personality, as you say in what may be the most revealing sentence in your book. But the problem is that the only voice one can be sure one hears in what should be dialogues is yours. This book can't claim to be a direct witness to some of the few who, you contend, make history; it's only your personal interpretation of these 14 people, based on impressions gathered over a few hours, at most. It's wrong to call your book an Interview with History. It's an interview with Oriana Fallaci.

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