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from the July 2009 issue

Introduction: The Tenses of Fidelity

The pieces collected here represent the many uses of memory in shaping and completing narratives. Some of these pieces are identified as memoirs and presented as truth; others blur the borders between fiction and fact, revising the past to make sense of the present, and conjugating what Catalan writer Carles Torner refers to as "the tenses of fidelity." The subjectivity of memory and history, and how the telling shapes the tale, are all addressed here, as authors interrogate the past to determine where the truth lies.

Eduardo Lago leads off with a swirling tale of identities both assumed and mistaken in the service of literary homage. In New York in the early 1980s, the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas thinks he sees J.D. Salinger on a bus; his hapless attempts to track down the famous recluse not only turn up in his later book Bartleby & Co., but trigger a chain of events that leads to Paul Auster's composition of City of Glass. Vila-Matas draws his tale from memory via Melville; Auster calls on chance and the tradition of detective noir; and Lago appropriates both narratives, then appears as witness and referee when the two authors, and their intersecting stories, meet. (Or does he?)

Tomá… Weiss's interview with the Czech writer Jáchym Topol at first appears a straightforward, if mordant, account of the latter's travel stories. Yet an offhand reference to "the nuthouse" places the tales in a different light. Weiss cheerfully notes that Topol spent four months in an asylum "to avoid military service"; but the extract from Topol's Angel—a harrowing account of a mental patient struggling to preserve his sanity—suggests that this might have been one trip that did not go as planned.

Three writers here consider individual and collective Holocaust memories. As the testimony of witnesses allows them to preserve both history and their own survival by imposing a conventional narrative structure on unspeakable experience, their descendants frame their own existence in the context of the horrific past.

Carles Torner's essay meditates on the role of language in the transmission of history. In addressing the invisibility of Shoah—both event and Claude Lanzmann's film—in his native Catalunya, Torner delineates the crucial role of translation in preserving and extending "an entire pedagogy of memory."

Eduardo Halfon gives voice to another survivor, his grandfather, whose revision of the past has enabled him to live into the present. The grandfather's reorganization of the facts—the digits tattooed on his arm are his phone number; a Polish boxer he met in Auschwitz saved his life—allows him to survive to tell this tale to his descendants. His grandson senses the elisions ("I even understood the question that is never asked: What did you have to do to survive?"), but knows the story is now his to tell.

Television writer and producer André Kaminski also retells a survivor's story, that of a French fugitive who was hidden by an officer in the Polish Resistance and is now convinced that he caused the death of his protector. Kaminski commandeers the tale for his program, molding it to his own needs and writing a new ending to both the story and—at last—the war.

In "Counterpoint," Anna Enquist's bereaved pianist submerges herself in Bach's Goldberg Variations after her daughter's death. Her immersion in this piece—itself an act of mourning, composed in Bach's grief at the death of his son—blends with her memories of practicing the Variations when her daughter was young; the repetitions on the theme reiterate the realization of loss: "You couldn't go back to the time when you had not yet heard the variations."

Luan Starova recalls his displaced family, tossed from the Ottoman Empire to Yugoslavia and then to the new republic of Macedonia, their only home the library kept by his father. When Starova inexplicably tears apart his father's manuscripts and defaces the administrative stamps on his documents, he destroys both the proof of the family's history and its fiction of a fatherland as well.

Iraqi activist Haifa Zangana's sorrowful Dreams of Baghdad remembers her comrade Fouad, imprisoned, tortured, and finally executed by the Hussein regime. Burdened with grief and guilt, Zangana tells the story yet again by translating her original, confirming Carles Torner's point about the power of language in the transmission of memory.

Generational memory—and the shared inability to give voice to it—informs Rouja Lazarova's Mausolée. When the narrative abruptly shifts from third person to first, we realize that the mother and daughter of the story are the grandmother and mother of the narrator, as a third generation of Bulgarians is silenced by fear. "Torturers know that a man subjected to absolute silence ends up losing his mind. We all lost ours while building Communism's radiant tomorrows."

We hope you find these explorations of personal, collective, and historical memory compelling.

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