Books

Katherine Brabon
The Memory Artist

The child of dissidents, Pasha finds his life stalled in the new Russia. It’s 1998, his mother has just died, and Pasha remembers the heady days of glasnost, a decade ago.

Remembering, or straining to remember, is all Pasha does: even times and events that he never lived through, memories that aren’t his own. Aware from infancy of the terrors imposed by Soviet rule – disappearances, papers burnt, words never to be spoken – he grew up understanding that what mattered must be committed to memory. The coming of glasnost, or openness, meant that the stories of Sovietism’s victims could find expression at last. 

Pasha, a young man then, burned to capture in writing the stories of those destroyed by Stalin and his successors – in particular, those subjected to “treatment” in the psychiatric institutions that, with the labour camps, sought to break (even to pre-empt) any resistance to the system. But, to write such stories, Pasha has to penetrate the silence of memory.

Ten years later, he has yet to write about the experiences that haunt and hobble him and all of his acquaintance. His compulsion to do so hasn’t subsided, but the regime of enforced silence, having been internalised by its victims, including Pasha, continues to oppress. His inability to write, and others’ reluctance to share their stories, owe something, too, to a sense of pointlessness: young Russians, they feel, don’t want to hear about past injustices.

For Pasha, there is no past: “Time is just there all at once.” He is a dokhodyaga: one trapped in a “state of precariousness, of near-existence and near-death”.

The Memory Artist won this year’s The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, open to writers under the age of 35. Knowing that seems necessarily to make a consideration of youth part of the reading experience, highlighting the extent to which, for all its (post-)Soviet underpinnings, The Memory Artist is also a portrait of youth. There’s Pasha’s listless yearning for “clarity”, the inertia of a life not yet inhabited (“I looked back on the last six years since I’d left Moscow and felt that nothing filled them”), and the perpetual, immobilising “gonna” of his intention to write.

But Katherine Brabon has written, giving us a thoughtful, tender novel of people damaged beyond expression. As an elderly neighbour tells Pasha, “You can’t really say what fifty years of silence feels like.”  FL

Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Katherine Brabon, The Memory Artist". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL

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