The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon

I read this novel in July last year, and then again last month. It’s rich, complex and multi-layered, and I may have to read it a third time.

‘With our words we linked our creative futures to the pasts of our parents.’

‘The Memory Artist’ opens in 1999, when Pasha Ivanov (the narrator) learns of the death of his mother.  Pasha is a Russian writer, a child of dissidents who grew up in the 1960s in a small Moscow apartment where his parents and their friends gathered.  Members of this group were determined to find out and circulate information about the ruthless repressions which had continued under successive governments long after Stalin’s death.  Millions of people had been murdered, placed in mental institutions, exiled to remote gulags or had simply disappeared.  Pasha’s mother and her friends campaigned for the release of political prisoners.  And Pasha remembers the ‘shiny mint-green Latvian radio that was moved to the table for those gatherings’.

‘The emergence of memory seemed to me like a warped wound, with a welt or bruise that had arrived inexplicably late. ‘

Pasha is in his early twenties when Mikhail Gorbachev comes to power in the 1980s.  With glasnost providing the promise of increased openness about the activities of government institutions, Pasha wants to write a book about the stories of killings and oppression he had heard while growing up.  He particularly wants to write of those who were forced to undergo treatment in the mental institutions.  While many Russians want to forget this period, Pasha believes that the past needs to be acknowledged.

In the 1990s, when the USSR has disintegrated and become the Russian Federation, Pasha is living in St Petersburg.  He is teaching Russian to foreigners, but has made no progress with his book.  He is seemingly overwhelmed by the past: unable to forget it or leave it behind, unable to treat it the way he thinks he should.  In the meantime, his own life is stalled.

‘I thought of my father and all the silent spaces in our apartment where he still lived, despite his death, where every day he still breathed.’

When his mother dies, Pasha goes to a dacha and writes.  It is summer, and the endless days provide the perfect setting for Pasha to try to move beyond the past and into the promise (perhaps) of a better present.  What does the future hold?

‘I hated to think of how words dissolve like smoke.’

I’ve read this book twice.  I kept willing Pasha to succeed, to be able to write the book.  As the story shifted between time periods, I could see why he wanted to write, but sometimes had trouble appreciating the various barriers Pasha saw.  This is a richly detailed story, one that invites the reader to read carefully, to appreciate the language used as much as the story told.  It is also a novel that I might, rarely for me, read a third time.

‘The Memory Artist’ won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award in 2016.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

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