The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, an award for an unpublished writer under the age of 35. Fair enough, the writing is good. But I didn’t like the story.
You can probably tell from the cover art that there is a Russian element to The Memory Artist. I certainly could, which is why I shouldn’t have chosen to read this book. I’ve never read any Russian fiction (by a Russian author or an Australian author) which hasn’t been miserable. Not surprising really, considering Russia’s history. The Russian people have suffered through horrific times and in weather that is far too cold for my bones. No wonder their stories are melancholy.
The Memory Artist is narrated by Pasha, a young man who grew up in Moscow. His mother and her friends were activists who gathered regularly at Pasha’s home during the late 1960’s to write articles exposing the cruel treatment of dissidents and to remember people and poetry which would otherwise cease to exist in anyone’s memory. Pasha can barely remember his father, who was imprisoned in a mental asylum along with many other dissidents whom the government called insane.
Pasha was an adult living in St Petersburg when his mother died. He is a would-be writer, who doesn’t write much during the course of narrating this novel. After his mother’s death, he tries to make sense of Russia’s past and present, ‘glasnost,’ where people are finally free to openly discuss the wrongs of the past. Mass graves are being found everywhere and people are openly talking about the people who disappeared to prisons, and cities which were built and never used.
Pasha is offered the use of a friend’s dacha for a summer holiday, where he intends to write the story of his family and friend’s times. He gets to know an elderly neighbour who tells him stories of the past, although the neighbour’s wife is silent and afraid that her husband’s verbosity will get them into trouble. Pasha’s girlfriend’s parents behave similarly when Pasha sets about interviewing them too. Older people who remember the violence of Stalin’s years, and middle aged people who lived through the Brezhnev years are often unable or unwilling to speak, and Pasha also seems unable to write openly and honestly.
The time this novel is set is enormously interesting. Glasnost was during the 1980’s, and I liked learning about young Russian people’s thirst for western clothing such as jeans and t shirts, and found it funny when Pasha likened people queueing for McDonalds when it first appeared in Moscow as being similar to people queueing in the past for food. I was also interested enough to listen to some Victor Tsoi punk rock, as Pasha described his music as the voice for his generation, however I didn’t feel very connected to Pasha or the other characters. Pasha’s inability to finish anything annoyed me, although that characteristic may have been symbolic of his generation’s lack of a sense of purpose, since they no longer had something to fight for.
I think that the writing makes The Memory Artist a worthy winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, however the sadness of Russian stories just aren’t for me.