The Memory Artist : Katherine Brabon's profound Vogel-winning novel

FICTION

The Memory Artist

KATHERINE BRABON

ALLEN & UNWIN, $29.99

The Memory Artist opens in 1999 when the narrator, Pasha, a young Russian writer, hears his mother has died. Pasha is a child of dissidents who grew up in Moscow amid secret gatherings as his mother and her friends campaigned for the release of political prisoners during the Brezhnev era. During his childhood the "shiny mint-green Latvian radio" on the kitchen table, with its broadcasts from the BBC or Voice of America, was a beacon in an otherwise grey world.

His mother's death is the catalyst that propels him to try to make sense of a past riven by state terror, and a present that lacks meaning. He goes to a dacha – a house in the country – and starts to write. It is summer and during those endless days when the sun never sets, he hovers precariously between present and past.

 

the memory Artist

Kathryn Brabon won the 2016 Vogel's Literary Award

The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon.

Pasha came of age in the late 1980s, during glasnost, when Russians were able to talk for the first time about the horrors of the gulags and discovery of mass graves. "After 70 years of Communist silence, people were emerging like survivors of a storm." During one fierce Moscow summer, with his girlfriend Anya at his side, and a cause burning in his heart, Pasha believed his words had the power to change the future. "A deep longing for art" united these "children of the Freeze… It was the time for everything to be open… everything that was wrong about our country was finally being confronted".

But his efforts to write are stymied. He is unable to finish anything. He "always lets memory plague a present moment".

In this profound debut novel, winner of the 2016 Vogel's Literary Award (for unpublished manuscripts by an author under the age of 35), Katherine Brabon draws upon theoretical models of memory, mourning and trauma, Freudian psychoanalysis and Russian literature. Written as part of a creative PhD at Monash University, the author's scholarly rigour is evident, yet the prose is delicately wrought. It is a story of interlocking layers that questions the power of art, our infallible nature and the devastating impact of suppressed memories on a national psyche.

Among the most moving parts are those where Pasha learns of the heinous crimes committed in asylums and hospitals, where his father was incarcerated. He learns how Soviet doctors diagnosed political dissent as "a mental disease". How patients were given drugs so they clenched their teeth unable to eat or speak. How "the parameters of madness and sanity… could be dictated by the government".

This novel deserves attentive reading. The repetition of the words "memory", "silence" and "ash" mute the narrative in a disquieting way. While the lack of speech quotation marks adds to this muffled tonal quality, and reinforces the theme of silencing the individual, the device is sometimes confusing. Towards the end, which deliberately feels unfinished, the theme of memory starts to somewhat snowplough the protagonist's own psychological journey, which is compelling enough.

But these are minor quibbles as the universality of the book is deeply affecting. Without commemoration, without acknowledging previous trauma, the unmourned dead become spectres in our lives and the past becomes a disease, "something that spreads to others, which can be passed between families and colleagues and generations", and which children take on as "traces".

While reading this, I was struck by its timeliness in our own journey towards recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution, and the untold impact of intergenerational trauma in this country. Although firmly located in Soviet Russia, The Memory Artist is a novel that makes you question history, written sources and the (un)reliability of maps, which like memory can be amended and revised.

To preserve their art, Russian poets dared not commit their words to paper, instead they had to learn them then destroy what they had written. "From ink to ash to memory."

Claire Scobie's novel The Pagoda Tree is published by Penguin.

 

 

 

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