Award-winning Russian author Maria Stepanova's In Memory of Memory is a radiant meditation on the past

Maria Stepanova winning The Big Book Prize, Russia's largest literary away, in 2018. Picture: Getty Images
Maria Stepanova winning The Big Book Prize, Russia's largest literary away, in 2018. Picture: Getty Images
  • In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova. New Direction, $34.25.

"Past lives are endlessly submissive, allowing us to do whatever we may decide to do with them."

So writes poet and journalist Maria Stepanova in this radiant memoir of many lives that she calls a "romance", a romance in the sense of an adventure-journey up to and over the barriers of the past.

The journey takes her into and through Russia's serial retellings of its history. It demonstrates to us that we colonise the past, like raiders; we deform the faces of its inhabitants as they are reborn in our forceps grip.

Stepanova is seeking out what Akhmatova called "not the calendar but the real" century in her travels into the past of her heroine's forebears and the lives of others connected to them: a reassembling of contradictions that, as in a poem, makes sense for long moments.

The heroine's searches for clues probe literary works, photographs, old toys, paintings, anecdotes, letters, all of which she calls "scraps of the past". In Memory of Memory is a scrapbook that morphs into selfies in the present.

The book asks the question: Does a person relive the scraps by retrieving and viewing them ... or does your string of memories form a necklace, like that in the Mandelstam poem, of dead bees, to hang around your neck as a memento of love?

The heroine of this romance moved from Moscow to Berlin in 2015, into the old Russian district, across the street from Nabokov's exile home. (Nabokov and his memoir Speak, Memory stoop in the shadows of this book.) She encounters the paving stones with bronze plaques that attest to crimes of the Holocaust and the fate of the people who were "destined to be air and smoke".

Travelling to Vienna and witnessing its Jewish past, she naturally wonders, who survives? Is the observer and recorder simply a voyeur who, by examining something-as in a single formulation of quantum mechanics-actually disturbs the thing in this double-slit experiment on history's light?

There is a term in Russian: malaya istoriya. It means "lesser history". These are the histories of families and friends and enemies. In Memory of Memory is telling us that it is these lesser histories that make up the big history of a nation, not the histories posted by leaders as refigured agendas. As such, Stepanova's language draws on any and all sources, from the prison cell to the house of worship; from the ardour of lovers' letters to the drudgery of the commissariat. It is as rich and, at times, wickedly ironic a fabric as that embroidered by poet Marina Tsvetaeva and satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, both of whom figure in the book; and this language, in all its brilliant vibrancy, is magnificently recreated in English by poet/translator Sasha Dugdale.

Historical references abound, like the trumped-up anti-Semitic show trial of Menachem Beilis in Kiev in 1911. But there is always a singular point in the distance these retellings lead to: that you need all the fragments of shattered glass you can carefully pick up to attempt to form a window for yourself.

Another stark presence here is the poet Osip Mandelstam, whom all too many in the Russian and Soviet literary establishment called "the little jewboy". (This "little jewboy" summarily eclipsed the lot of them in the fairness of time.) Mandelstam is seen in internal exile in Voronezh between 1935 and the year of his death, 1938, when his poetry came under siege by weaponized polemics, a delicate sparrow that flew all too close to a hive of yellow jacket apparatchiki.

"The dead," writes Stepanova, "have no rights: their property and the circumstances of their fate can be used by anyone and in any way." All the more vital reason for writers to claim that property from officialdom's crooked pawnbrokers.

As a child the heroine visited the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, where great-grandmother Sarra Ginzburg was imprisoned in tsarist times. She continued to revisit the fortress as an adult, to see where Sarra "had been blinked away, like a mote in the eye". She checked in its archives - no trace. ("The place would not acknowledge her existence.") So where to look for her existence? She traces it by following the point of her pencil over that thin semi-opaque paper between her and the fading lines of the past.

The poet Alexandr Blok, who appears in the book, wrote a poem about a girl singing in a church choir and "all the ships that had gone off to sea". A child in the church is weeping, "aware of the secret, that no one at all would be coming back home".

But after reading In Memory of Memory, you realise that you have been given a glimpse of them, these people and places far away in the past whose light you thought could never reach you.

The book's major achievement is that it destroys the compartmentalisation of the past into neat eras and pat narrative lessons. In the lines and voids between the visual and the aural, the documented and the imagined, lie the contradictions inherent in our present.

In Memory of Memory creates a record that negates despair. If not exactly healing, this record comes with a healthy dose of hope.

  • Roger Pulvers' latest book is a collection of short stories, The Charter.
This story Lessons in our 'lesser histories' first appeared on The Canberra Times.