Title: Memory Wall: Stories
Author: Anthony Doerr
PP: 256 Pages
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Aldous Huxley once famously said, “Every man’s memory is his private literature.” In this luminous collection of short stories (including an 83 page novella), Anthony Doerr probes the fragility and endurance of memory, in locales that vary from South Africa to Hamburg…from Lithuania to Wyoming…and from the heinousness of the Holocaust to an immediate dystopian future.
This masterful collection is bookmarked by an opening and an ending story with two diverse elderly women as key protagonists. The title story, Memory Wall, presents the elderly Alma, who lives in South Africa where she undergoes periodic “harvesting” of memories, stored on a series of numbered cartridges. By “hooking herself up”, she is able to recreate experiences to stave off her worsening dementia. She falls victim to a criminal and his accomplice “memory hunter” who attempt to rummage through these cartridges to find the location of a rare and lucrative gorgon fossil – one that will be the ticket to the good life that has been denied them. The young accomplice muses, “Dr. Amnesty’s cartridges, the South African Museum, Harold’s fossils, Chefe Carpenter’s collection, Alma’s memory wall – weren’t they all ways of trying to defy erasure? What is memory anyway? How can it be such a frail, perishable thing?”
The ending story also focuses on an elderly woman – in this case, Esther, an orphan and an epileptic, who was spared the fate of her many close friends in Birkenau. Now in her early 80s and living in suburban Cleveland, her seizures are getting worse and she returns again and again in her mind to poignant, nightmarish memories of her times in ravaged Hamburg, as she relives her survivors guilt. As he watches her deterioration, her grandson Robert reflects, “Every hour…all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during the same hour, children are moving about, surveying territory that to them is totally new.”
As in most short story collections, each reader will likely have his or her favorites. One of mine is the fable-like Village 113; the Three Gorges Dam is about to be built, submerging a village and forcing its inhabitants to relocate. The tale is relayed by seed keeper, whose engineer son is spearheading the project. Doerr writes, “Memory is a house with ten thousand rooms; it is a village slated to be inundated.” The seed keeper and the schoolteacher are quite literally drowning in memories.
Each of Anthony Doerr’s well-crafted stories focuses on the most important things in life: birth, death, survival, solace, but most of all the memories that – according to the epigraph from Luis Buñuel – are “our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.”