Review: The Memory Artist

Author: Katherine Brabon
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

The Memory Artist - Book Cover In the Vogel Prize–winning The Memory Artist, Katherine Brabon has delivered an assured debut novel that sketches a powerful, melancholic impression of the legacy of the Soviet Union. It is 1999 when 34–year–old Pasha is hauled away from his life of social and emotional detachment in St Petersburg to see to the funeral of his mother in Moscow. The return to the city of his birth sets off a chain of memories that animates his own long–stalled writing project: a work of documentation that links his own memory of the hopeful glasnost years and the early years of post– Soviet collapse to the ongoing ripples of Soviet oppression that circle out from his closest family and friends. The traumas suffered by these people, whether directly experienced or preserved in the retold memories of past generations, span the many decades of Soviet terror and rigidity: from Stalin’s mass murder, to the petrifaction of life in the gulags and mental institutions that lingered long into the Brezhnev years and beyond. Among the samizdat dissidents of Pasha’s 1970s childhood, many faces, including his own father’s, disappeared into prisons and hospitals. In 1989, one of those who re– emerged, Oleg, takes Pasha on a journey to the Solovetsky Islands, the first gulag in the almost incomprehensibly vast archipelago of camps. Pasha’s glasnost–era girlfriend, Anya, introduces him to her father who bears the deep scars of the mental torture inflicted on him by the state, when to be dissident was to become subject to a normative psychology whose punitive standards were dictated by collectivist ideology. It’s significant, of course, that Pasha narrates the novel from a buffer zone in time that runs from the summer to the autumn of 1999. The novel does not see in the post–Soviet era proper, which began on the last day of that year as Boris Yeltsin ushered in the now–sixteen–year ascendancy of Vladimir Putin. While the Putin age and its own ideologies and repressions are too much political and historical ground for this novel to cover – this is an attempt to account for the past – there is no doubt that it is lurking around the corner. It’s a measure of Brabon’s skill as a writer that the Soviet Union and post–Soviet Russia she delivers through its cities, its dachas and the vast distances from the centres of culture to the outposts of repression, are not crippled by the clichés of monotonously–long nights and snow drifts. Rather, the settings are swept through by the hallucinatory glow of midsummer days, an uncertainty about the beginning and ending of things, and eventually into the shifts in seasons. Brabon has the wise knack of being able to hew together, on Pasha’s behalf, strings of nouns and objects that, even as they are informed by erudite surveys of Russian literature and philosophy, develop a picture – a work of memory art – that is possessed with familiar melancholic grammar. Just as in the writing of W.G. Sebald, the marriage of place, a wide sweep of history and memory’s strange swim through time and trauma, tied as they are to the consciousness of an individual inside it all, combine to deliver a reminder, in the midst of its illusion, that all this happened to real people.

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