It’s remembrance Sunday here, and it seems fitting to think of memory. I have been reading a very interesting article on The Frailest Thing, about how memory, place, and new technology are overlapping. About the loneliness of remembering something. Read it here.
It’s made me think of how I was trying to use memory in Kilea – both in the construction of the book, and within the confines of it. Kilea takes place on a remembered, and therefore fragmentary and mythologised island. The similarities should be clear to anyone who has been to the real island – but perhaps not. Because of the experiential base of memory.
Within the book, the landscape is continually distorted and enhanced by individual memory, mixed with folk-memory too. The Highlands have so much folk-history present in their absent spaces, their Cleared land, their war-built forestry plantations. The whole landscape of the book heaves with it, with poison and beauty and inaccessible places and roads that are frequently covered by soil slipping from the hills. The landscape of an island as more memory than reality. The tides move the borders, and the dead have moved the dead. The stones of crofters’ houses fall into the bogs created of long-dead forests.
Mrs Sabine, an older woman who looks after the young Kilea, has accrued decades of memories of place, though few people she can share these memories with exist. She remembers open fields, each rock and abandoned rusting plough, and gauges the passing of her life by them, by the way they appear unchanging and she so frail and mutable.
The town square’s war memorial, dating from WW1, causes her a lot of pain. It is a touchstone of the past, wreathed in poppies, carved all over with names of people she has not known, and might be judged for even reading – a foreign, German-born woman of the WW2 era, browsing, consuming, the names of the dead. Nothing is known, precisely, about her involvement or culpability in Nazi Germany. She has self-effaced, though there are hints that she suffered greatly. A desire not to be seen remembering that crushes her.
Remembrance. Acknowledgement, however painful. It is required of us, though we can go about remembering in all sorts of self-protective ways. We can lie to ourselves, about the glories of war. We can lie about our culpability in wars of recent past. We can lie about pain. Or we can sit still and take it in, these memories. We can stand and watch the landscape shifting under our gaze.
I think – moving away from the painful matter of war – of the setting of Kilea, and I think of the shape of absence within it,the great gnawing pain of unremembering and trying not to recall. Sometimes too I think of the book as an object of the past. An absence of concrete form. A space that is not even left empty on a bookshelf. A phantom limb that never was.
But a book, even unpublished, is more than a memory. It has the near infinite capacity for creation, for sturdiness. We lose our oral histories all the time, but a book is hard to lose. It can become, it can endure. I just wonder how, with Kilea,this will enact itself. How it might become, transcend memory through memory’s opposite.