For the first few years of Rooke's friendship with Lieutenant Silk, Rooke creates a binary system to think about the relationship between storytelling and truth. He positions himself as a man of science; that is, he records undeniable, unquestionable, rational truth. Silk, on the other hand, is a storyteller. Though Rooke recognizes that the stories Silk tells contains nuggets of truth, he also believes that Silk is far more interested in crafting a compelling narrative than in telling the exact, scientific truth like Rooke does. When Rooke begins secretly recording Cadigal grammar and vocabulary in New South Wales, he starts doing so in a very scientific way--one that he believes will tell the whole, unadulterated truth of the language. However, as Rooke continues to keep what he's doing secret, he begins to realize that storytelling isn't necessarily out to undermine the truth. Rather, he realizes that secrecy will undermine both the actual truth and the story he tells about it.
During the American Revolutionary War, Silk tells stories during dinner with one purpose: to entertain. These stories amuse Rooke as well as the other soldiers, and Rooke comes to realize that crafting entertaining stories is a cathartic process for his friend, much as science and math had spared Rooke from emotional pain in the past. Therefore, Rooke begins to think of both storytelling and science as different ways to tell the truth and make sense of it. However, once in New South Wales, Rooke begins to question this assumption. The way that Silk talks about his commissioned narrative of New South Wales begins to trouble Rooke, as Rooke notices discrepancies in Silk's narrative. Rooke worries, then, that Silk is lying about his time in the colony in order to craft the most compelling narrative possible, which leads Rooke to wonder what Silk's true motives are. He's particularly concerned when Silk talks about what he wishes would happen for the sake of his narrative, such as prisoner uprisings or an attack by the natives. At that point neither event seems likely to happen, and the natives in particular have shown little of themselves or of any violent tendencies. This leads Rooke to believe that his own methods of recording truth in scientific terms are far superior to Silk's method of storytelling, as he sees that while Silk's stories are ripe for embellishment, his meteorological readings are impossible to turn into an embellished story.
As Rooke's trust in Silk begins to erode, his relationship with Tagaran and the other Cadigal women and children flourishes. Rooke records what he learns of the Cadigal language in two notebooks in a way that he believes is inarguably truthful: he organizes verb and vocabulary lists, as well as ways of organizing grammar rules. By creating a very scientific method of recording the language, Rooke hopes to avoid some of the embellishment and tendency towards untruth he sees in Silk's narrative. However, as Rooke finds that his scientific system doesn't allow him to effectively record everything he hears and learns, he begins to develop his own method of storytelling. He starts simply recording conversations in Cadigal word for word, and then makes brief notes in English to describe what happened, what was said, or the meaning of specific words. To Rooke, his rudimentary notes are enough to convey what happened and what was said. Notably, Rooke never intends for anyone else to read his notes. They're only enough to jog his memory and this method of storytelling, coupled with the fact that Rooke keeps his studies and relationship with the Cadigal secret for so long, has disastrous consequences.
When Silk reads Rooke's notebooks, he does so without any of the knowledge that Rooke has about what happened. Because of this, Silk doesn't read the notebooks as unadulterated truth; he takes Rooke's bare-bones notes and reads extended narratives into them that were never actually there. He reads a disturbing sexual relationship between Rooke and Tagaran, but he does so because he doesn't have any of the background knowledge that Rooke does. Essentially, though Silk certainly creates a compelling story where there isn't one, he only has the opportunity to do so because Rooke didn't effectively convey a truthful narrative to begin with, either verbally or on paper. When Silk refuses to believe Rooke, Rooke learns the true consequence of his secrecy and his silence: he's no longer in control of the story his "truthful" notes can tell. Though Rooke goes on to keep his notebooks secret to prevent the same thing from happening again, Rooke learns that storytelling, particularly when done with care to convey the truth, most certainly has its place. His most important takeaway, however, is that a highly-embellished tale isn't the only way to obscure or compromise the truth; secrecy and silence have the potential to do just as much damage.
Storytelling and Truth ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Truth Quotes in The Lieutenant
The slaves were utterly strange, their lives unimaginable, but they walked and spoke, just as he did himself. That speech he had heard was made up of no sounds he could give meaning to, but it was language and joined one human to another, just as his own did.
It was foreign to Rooke, the idea of taking the real world as nothing more than raw material. His gift lay in measuring, calculating, deducing. Silk's was to cut and embellish until a pebble was transformed into a gem.
Gamekeeper! The word suggested the society that Lancelot Percival James had boasted of at the Academy: pheasants and deer in a park artfully planted to enhance the prospect, cheerful peasantry tipping their caps to the squires riding by.
But New South Wales was no gentleman's estate...and the gamekeeper was a criminal who had been given a gun.
But language was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine. To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts.
What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary or grammatical forms. It was the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.
He must tell, otherwise what up till now had been simply private would take on the dangerous power of a secret. The task was to tell, but to minimize.
He had written as in despair in order to indicate that her despair was feigned. To him it had obviously been a joke. What native, even a child, would believe that washing would make them white? He had failed to record the joke on the page, in the same way he failed to note that they were breathing, or that their hearts were beating.
They all knew what he had turned his face away from: like it or not, he was Berewalgal. He wore the red coat. He carried the musket when he was told to. He stood by while a man was flogged. He would not confront a white man who had beaten his friends.
But to shoot a piece of metal out of it that could penetrate a shield or a human body and expose the shambles within: that was of another order of experience. Another language. What it said was, I can kill you.
He did not want her to learn that language. Certainly not from him.
But written down like that, with its little full stop, the possibility of doubt was erased. The meaning would never be questioned again. What had felt like science was the worst kind of guesswork, the kind that forgets it is a guess.
It was the simplest thing in the world. If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed. If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong. You did not have to take up the hatchet or even to walk along with the expedition.