The Memory Man

by Lisa Appignanesi
272 pages,
ISBN: 1900850893

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The Review of: The Memory Man
by Desmond McNally

I have become a convert-no, not to Judaism, which is such a crucial part of this novel, but to the writings of Lisa Appignanesi. I was aware of her excellent reputation but had not read any of her work until now.
Bruno Lind, a neuroscientist specializing in the functions of the brain and its role in memory recall has arrived in Vienna, the city of his birth. He is to present the keynote speech at a conference on this very subject and uses this opportunity to revisit locales that are part of his past but are beyond his recollection.
While in Vienna, several incidents jar Lind's recalcitrant memory. The name Aleksander Tarski is overheard in the hotel lobby; a skateboarder crashes into Lind, sending him to hospital; his adoptive daughter Amelia arrives in Vienna, and he is introduced to Irena, a Polish freelance journalist.
A series of wonderfully crafted transitions afford us insight into Lind's past. We learn that his father was taken by storm troopers from their home prior to the outbreak of war, and that he never returned. This tragedy prompted the family to move back to Poland to seek safety with Bruno's maternal grandparents in the countryside.
In a seamless segue the author then transports the reader back to present-day Poland. Amelia, believing that a visit to Poland might prove therapeutic for her father, urges him to make the trip. They travel in the company of Tarski and Irena. The train journey to Poland prompts Bruno to draw painful parallels with his youth: the other trains that had transported him-the cattle boxcars, and goods trains. His last journey was followed by two years in a refugee camp run by the Allies in post-war Germany. He remembers being introduced to medicine, his stay in Montreal and his marriage to his late wife Eve.
In present-day Krakow we are introduced to Irena's mother, Marta, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease-another memory-related condition. Irena craves to know about her past and the identity of her birth father, but realizes that her mother's affliction will preclude her discovering more than she already knows.
Throughout the novel, the author writes eloquently of the plight of Polish Jews at the hands of the Germans, Russians and their fellow Poles. Cruelty, famine and death became tragically commonplace. We learn all this as we follow the life of the adolescent Bruno, marveling at the courage and steadfastness of "ordinary" people. It is particularly heart-rending to read of his dying grandfather, writing from the ghetto, telling Bruno to escape and "live for all of us".
Eventually the author concludes her tale in the present, and the mystery of the past is satisfactorily explained, though the denouement will no doubt raise a few readers' eyebrows.
This is a compelling novel, written with understated passion. The characters are treated with the utmost tenderness, and the narrative is constructed in such a fashion that this reader was forced to restrain himself in order not to read too quickly.

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