Despite the promise its name offers, The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon is not an easy read. Winner of the 2016 Australian Vogel Literary Award for debut novel, the book was not on my radar but was recommended by an Australian friend who graciously lent it to me. More like a tome of Russian history, Brabon packs her book with references, a byproduct of her writing a dissertation on Russia’s twentieth century dissidents and censorship.
Brabon writes the story as the memoir of Pasha, whose family members are dissidents when he was a young boy. Driven by a yearning to understand and remember, Pasha tries to capture three periods in his life as well as the complementary periods in Russian history. Familiar names float through the narrative – Stalin, Dostoevsky, Gorbachov, Khrushchev, and others, as Pasha examines the past, trying to remember and record. The story takes the reader from the Brezhnev years of Pasha’s childhood, the Glasnost years of his young adulthood, and finally, his solitary adulthood in St. Petersburg, at the beginning of Putin’s new Russia.
In its strong message warning that fact and memory are both closely related , with truth often changing depending on who is in power, Brabon offers a lesson for understanding history. Brabon wields her research, weaving an understandable story, but it is no less easy to read.
Pasha’s story is not linear and Brabon inserts rambling references to Russian literature and politics, sometimes frustrating the reader. References to the political oppression with horrors of the gulag are not easy to read: heinous crimes committed in asylums and hospitals, where his father was incarcerated; political dissidents given drugs so they clenched their teeth unable to eat or speak; “the parameters of madness and sanity… could be dictated by the government.”
Brabon clearly had a mission in writing her novel, and she accomplished it well, but the books is not for everyone – even those particularly interested in Russian literature or politics. Perhaps time will give the book more weight as the future unfolds, but, like Pasha’s journey, perhaps the search for a lost country could never be satisfying.