Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Memory Room

I have just finished reading this book The Memory Room by Mary Krakow. This was one of the books I was lucky to be given in Sheenalashay's Giveaway this month. The book is a powerful narrative in prose and poetry and weaves some of the words of Paul Celan's poetry particularly his poem Todesfuge or Deathfugue; John Felsteiner's translation is shown below and you can hear Paul Celan reading his work in the Youtube video underneath.

Mary Rakow describes the healing journey of a woman who has suffered indescribable torments at the hands of her parents as a child. Throughout you see painted the will with which a child attempts to both preserve their life and their sense of goodness, sanity and humanity. My conclusion immediately upon finishing was that we do not say No to suffering as forcefully as we should and that there should be nothing ambiguous about our response to violence.
Her character 'Barbara' seeks and creates solace in places and things where she can find some semblance of safety away from all the reminders of the harrowing moments that have been etched into her memory and her existence. At one point she describes it as 'A basket lined with memory like pitch' and in returning to a favourite place of refuge near an image of St Michael she writes '...Evil can be overcome. Again, I ask, until I believe you may I rest beside your leather shoe.' Such a beautiful embodiment of that feeling, of the desire in us to believe we can thwart such violence against our and other's being, juxtaposed with our utter helplessness that all violence renders upon its victims.

Gradually with the help of a patient therapist we see her begin to emerge as a whole person, piecing together her psyche. 'I did not know until then what a barn coming out of winter could smell like... I thought for sure I heard tulips underground discuss the time of their appearing.'

She is startled and undone by the weave of fabrics or certain compositions of music that she associates with devastating horror. Yet at the same time it is art, and music that provides a refuge, and an answer to humanity's eternal question. We ask why are we, but equally this book asks why are we as we are? And crucially can we be any different? She writes 'This is my goal that my memories become like Monet's Waterlilies. Soft brushstroke and bold. Ivory pink and a hundred shades of blameless blue.'

We are led with her as she regains memories long buried and with good reason, and struggles to lay them to rest. We learn about the unspoken violence that others have suffered, remained silent about and remained damaged by as a result. 'Dolores Mary is seventy years old. For half a century she has had night lights burning in every room'

Mary Krakow writes so beautifully it undermines you, in the sense of being mined beneath the solidity of your own psyche; of having your perspectives stolen and remoulded, deepened and enlarged with profound yet simple sentences and subtle prose. We see her character search for meaning and answers through other real people who have searched and not found answers, at least not answer that would allow them to continue living. We are highly sensitised to the suffering of others through Barbara's anguish, her collecting of news clippings and understanding of the devastation of violence and abuse in childhood.

It really allows you to look through new eyes, and yet in a way soothes you as Barbara soothes herself with rhyme and couplet, empathy and the random acts of kindness of neighbours and loved ones who though they may not understand; try and in their trying unwittingly become modest heroes. Sometimes heroism is implied by what you do not do and have not done.

My conclusion that 'we do not say "No" to suffering as forcefully as we should and that there should be nothing ambiguous about our response to violence' was very clear upon finishing this book. I thought a moments silence; you almost want to hold the book like a ship in a bottle out before you and wonder at it and then I thought we do not say No to suffering as forcefully as we should.

Here is a desperate clinging in to humanity for hope and to make sense of existence. As Elie Wiesel says'‎...Despair is not an answer despair is a question... I believe in the humanity of the human being, I have problems with God - that's because I believe in God, if I stopped believing in god I would have no problems, but I do believe and therefore I have problems and I go on... ‎If I was alone totally alone I would have the right to give into despair - but I am not alone and therefore I have no right to give into despair, I must.. to quote Camut 'I must invent hope where there is none' Not for my sake but for the sake of the children' ' Elie Wiesel

It is also for ourselves that we must 'invent hope' whether it be found in Art, Music or companionship. Or in acts of a generous nature assisting those who are not free, or do not have the means to fulfil their potential - to do so.

It dwells much on the purpose of life, on the human condition. Buddhism describes our human birth as implicitly entwined with suffering and yet it equally describes a pure unadulterated awareness beyond this that is not maligned by any labels of good or bad, of this or that.

We are all of us reeling from so many wrongs. Born into childhoods of suffering or growing up into such moments. We all of us will face loss, we have changes in our fortune. Sometimes we meet people, who assist us in our understanding, who give us tools with which we may arm ourselves against suffering or which help us overcome injustice. Here is a book that does both these. It demands you to be stronger, gentler, long sighted and yet acutely present. You cannot read this and not glimpse some of the finest qualities of humanity outlined as they are against a bare skyline of atrocity and condemnation. They are bleak those places we must attend to in order to heal. You must sift through them for answers. Auschwitz exists as a memorial, people go there almost as an act of pilgrimage - a search for answers and yet survivors will tell you - there are no answers there only more questions.

Yet this state of disbelief, of ambiguity, of shock and questioning leads directly to the abuse and deaths of innocents. We need to be decisive; to say NO to suffering. To show our unwillingness to allow such events to unfold. If necessary we should have a ready willingness to risk our lives to curtail it. We know now the many routes it can take to come into existence; negligence, neutrality, sitting on a fence, not committing oneself, taking sides, not taking sides, silence and time. Silence and time are two of the most damaging precursors to an act of violation. If we do not know we must find out... If we do know, we must not hide behind our belief that we are inadequate to effect change. Or that do not know enough. Injustice often wears a disguise and we must have eyes to see through such disguises.

Silence and time.

We have on our side history, freedom of speech, law, an emerging international community, the ability to communicate immediately and to record what is happening.
We have pitfalls; isolation, the dismembering of the family, of traditional communities, economic segregation. We have heroes - everywhere. They speak up, they shout, the join together as powerful people. We have laws to be undone, and new laws to create that will serve rather than force us into servitude.

This then is our work. To offer great ease of suffering where we can. To find out our path in this. Whether you read a piece like Rakow's, or write it; or are in it suffering like Barbara, or you are seeing it unfold before your eyes; two enemies we all share are silence and time. Must we always see violence from the other side after it has been committed? Or can we pre-empt this with far-sightedness?

I think we can live in this world together, without violence, but instead raising each other up. A peaceful world is possible, there are examples of peace everywhere, you simply have to look for them. People are healing and helping each other to heal.
People are caring for all kinds and all creatures. It is possible that we can start living in a peaceful world but only if we acknowledge the holocausts of the present the Deathfugue that sounds out all around us in conflict, violence, human trafficking, environmental degradation. Is the application of human rights only for those who economically qualify? The only rule for having your human rights respected should be that you are human. Those who have been without such rights such as Elie Wiesel know full well their value 'I felt really elated; I had never had a passport in my life. In France I was stateless. And here in America finally I became a citizen, I cannot tell you what I felt really. I felt so proud. The highest honorus I received at the Universities was nothing compared to that I had a passport. For those that are already in America they take it for granted but for a refugee it means something.' As we know, a child has the least rights of anyone and this is why such horrible stories as Rakow recounts can unfold; we must be attentive to the needs of the child and above all listen to them.

We can continue in our present form of prejudice, or we can move towards an enlightened society that does not distinguish one human from another based on nationality or social standing etc We need to become socially, culturally, environmentally and economically sustainable. Just as Mary Rakow's character had to find a way and a reason to heal and continue living, we must do the same as a society and we can only do this together.

Todesfuge or Deathfugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped

He shouts jab the earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are so blue
jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays his vipers
He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland
he shouts scrape your strings darker you'll rise then as smoke to the sky
you'll have a grave then in the clouds there you won't lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

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