The Memory Man, by Lisa Appignanesi

Austria, amnesia and the Holocaust
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The Independent Culture

Lisa Appignanesi has focused this novel on the character of Bruno Lind, an American, Polish-born neurologist who is invited to a conference on memory in Vienna. The visit awakens his childhood memories of flight from the Nazis and the murder of his family. Although the narrative starts in a return to Vienna, it crosses borders through 1940s' Polish territory. However, it's not the geography that haunts the story, but a search for missing daughters and fathers.

Lisa Appignanesi has focused this novel on the character of Bruno Lind, an American, Polish-born neurologist who is invited to a conference on memory in Vienna. The visit awakens his childhood memories of flight from the Nazis and the murder of his family. Although the narrative starts in a return to Vienna, it crosses borders through 1940s' Polish territory. However, it's not the geography that haunts the story, but a search for missing daughters and fathers.

On his way to the Memory Conference, Bruno Lind undergoes a minor collapse in front of his childhood home in Vienna. This prompts his adopted black American daughter, Amelia, to fly over from the US. Amelia has converted to Judaism and longs to know more about her father's early life. She convinces Bruno to explore his memories of the Nazi occupation, which he has until now kept from her.

Trailing along with them is Irena, a middle-aged Polish Catholic journalist whose mother suffers from Alzheimer's. The trio travel from Vienna to Poland and the secret link between Lind and Irena's mother is ultimately revealed.

The novel starts as a neat idea, but the problem is that we are on familiar ground. Amnesia, repression and the loss of Holocaust history has been explored by many authors as real testimony. Eva Hoffman's Lost In Translation is one of the best-known of these memoirs and, more recently, Linda Grant's Remind Me Who I Am Again traced her mother's Alzheimer's disease in a suburban English context. This year, Mira Hamermesh evoked her own memories in The River of Angry Dogs. Hamermesh's images of the river crossings from the Polish to the Soviet side are reflected in The Memory Man.

Appignanesi's research feels authentic but, next to these autobiographies, there is a glaring disparity. It's not that fiction cannot compete with memoir. The Dutch author Harry Mulisch also covers this world of a returning academic to Vienna in his fantasy novel, Siegfried. Here the prose (even in translation) jumps off the page, whereas Appignanesi's feels rather stiff: I wanted her to let rip and explore the secret lives of her characters.

That said, Appignanesi manages skilfully to transmit the connections between individual and collective memory. When talking about Austria's amnesia and its insistence on playing the victim role, she has one of her characters observe: "Without an agreed-upon memory, there was no possibility of community".

The Gulbenkian Foundation's Arts & Science programme supported the writing of this novel as part of the attempt to promote the marriage of the two disciplines. The science/art motif is connected through Alzheimer's disease, which runs through a narrative that shows memory loss not merely as the erosion of brain functions but, in this case, as the disappearance of collective and individual history under Nazi occupation. It is the abnegation of atrocities committed, and sexual acts enjoyed.



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