Excerpts from The Memory Artists
Most people want to learn how to remember more; for Noel Burun, the big task, the most burdensome, was to learn how to forget. Not only the painful things in life, which we all want wiped away, but things in general. For whenever Noel heard a voice or read a word, multicoloured shapes would form inside his head that served as markers or maps, helping him to recollect, in the minutest detail, an emotion, a mood, a tone of voice, the words themselves-of events that happened up to three decades ago.
Back in 1978, for example, when they came to tell him his father was dead, this is what lit up Noel's nine-year-old brain:
A dry and crumbly voice like kitty litter... [turning into] a pockmarked strip of tarnished brass, which tapered swordlike, seemed to disappear, then reappeared as a blood-red pendulum. It began to sway, in brighter and brighter reds, blindingly, and then a change, another voice, a spongy yolk-yellow blob with throbbing burnt-rose rings. A louder, higher voice interrupted, a cruciform shape, cranberry at its nave, the lightness fading from the centre outwards so that the edges appeared pearl white. Another voice, brassy and belching like a bass trombone, and a streak of lightning, jagged-edged and barium yellow, split the sky of my brain in two. Slowly, the serrations melted away, the yellow disintegrating into pulsating steel, and it felt like a dagger had pierced my spine. Then the gravelly voice again from the man in front of me, the tarnished brass and then... silence, against a backdrop of Etch-A-Sketch grey. The "dead mood," I used to call it, the lull before things returned to normal. I opened my eyes: my mother was speaking, her throat strangling each syllable. A black-suited man from Adventa Pharmaceuticals was trying to comfort her, while two moustachioed men in navy blue stared at me...
Especially when he was younger and didn't know how to stop them, these images could explode like endlessly exploding fireworks, setting off more and more colour patterns and memory clusters, carrying him so far adrift, so far into the back alleys of his universe that he had trouble following even the simplest conversation. Unless it was passive communication, like watching television, Noel needed to absorb a person's voice, experience the distinct colours and shapes, before he could decipher the words themselves.
Not surprisingly, everyone thought Noel was off his head, and that was fine with him. His mother loved him, his father loved him, and because of the colours in his head he was able to miss more school than all his classmates combined. The images, moreover, had a practical purpose: although I've got little else going for me, Noel often thought, I've got a fantastic memory. Which sometimes comes in handy.
When he did go to school his classmates taunted him mercilessly ("It would've been better," one of them confided, "if you'd never been born"), but eventually they got used to his vacant spells and fog. "Commander Noel" was on one of his "spacewalks." His teachers, especially at first, would react with annoyance or sarcasm: "Is this, ahem, one of your convenient periods of mental unemployment, my dear Burun?" And everyone would laugh. When he told them, in private, about the colliding colours, they immediately suspected drug abuse: it sounded very much like LSD or mescaline or some newfangled hallucinogen. Was this a matter for the authorities? And so the rumours spread. The brains and dweebs avoided him, whereas people like Radar Nénon, the school's first acid-popping punk, took a sudden liking to him. He'd finally found someone who saw stranger things than he did.
"Schizophrenics have abnormal colour perceptions," one teacher told him, while another said that "It's got to be aphasia or autism, one or the other." The school nurse, a chronically irate Welsh widow, had another explanation: "You've got a definite defect, son. Deprived of oxygen in the womb perhaps-or dropped headfirst off the delivery table." But it was none of the above, as he soon found out from a friend of his father's, a renowned Montreal neurologist named Émile Vorta.
"Congratulations," said the doctor with unaccountable good cheer, in French, after a mind-deadening battery of perception and memory tests. "You're one in twenty thousand. You're blessed-although sometimes you may feel cursed-with a complex sensitivity known as synaesthesia."
Why is he so happy? Noel wondered, as the doctor shook his little hand. Because he can experiment on me like one of his chimpanzees?
"You're the first male synaesthete I've met. Now, I want you to do something that will help us both a great deal. I want you to keep a diary. Do you know what a diary is?"
"Yes, I already keep one."
"A diary is a book in which you write down things that happened to you during the day. Or the events of your past. Or in your dreams-"
"Once I dreamt I was walking through this gigantic crossword puzzle-"
"Or the colours and shapes you see in your head when people talk to you. And I'd like to see it at the end of every month. Do you understand?"
"Sometimes when people talk I wish I had a decoder ring-"
"Does anyone else in your family have anything like... what you have?"
Noel paused. "Why, is there a genetic component associated with this condition, Doctor?"
Dr Vorta paused. He could barely believe his ears. Seven years old! "As a matter of fact there is... as you say, a genetic component associated with this condition."
"Well, my mom's mom had some strange things in her head like me. Dad thought she was into the cooking brandy."
"I see." Dr Vorta nodded. "Yes, it's most often passed on through the female side."
"She was a witch. A good witch."
"Was she really?"
"We got tons of letters from her from Scotland-with magic spells inside-except we can't find them. When we moved we lost them. I met her once."
"Did you really?"
"I pushed her rocking chair when nobody was sitting in it and she said that's bad luck, ghosts come and sit in it."
"You don't say? Well, we'll have lots of time to talk about all that. I think we'll be spending a lot of time together. Would you like that?"
"Not really. She had two different shoes on-because she broke in her shoes one at a time, Mom said. And her tongue was black, from chewing charcoal biscuits-to stop her from farting, Mom said."
To Noel's father, in the waiting room, Dr Vorta ended his excited diagnosis with, "Congratulations, Henry. Your son's in good company, very good company indeed. Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin all had synaesthesia, and so did Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Proust!"
A man of thwarted artistic ambitions, Mr Burun beamed at the news. "You forgot Nabokov," he added.
"And the odd Nobel prize-winning scientist!"
"Émile, this calls for a drink."
Like complicitous schoolboys the two couldn't stop grinning, or pumping each other's hand, as though this were the greatest, the most promising thing on earth. Noel wasn't smiling at all.
Noel's Diary (II)
January 2, 2002. On a Sunday in winter when I was not yet 5, during a game called Remembrance, I told my father about the colliding colours I had in my brain and how hard it was to escape them. He called it a 'collideorscape.' I liked the sound of this, and we used the code name for years. (It was from Finnegans Wake, I learned later.) I think of this now because I have begun to see my mother's mind as a kind of kaleidoscope as well: the slanted mirrors inside her are reflecting pieces of her past and present-names, faces, events, dreams-which are rotated by some mysterious hand to make new patterns, new connections: her husband's face appears with my name; our neighbour's breast cancer becomes hers; her father returns to life; a dream is confused with reality. And then the kaleidoscope turns again, and the mirrors create yet another warped view of reality, yet another helter-skelter mosaic...
January 7. Mom walked into the lab as I was kneeling on the floor, picking up pieces of a dropped Erlenmeyer. After looking this way and that, examining all the chemicals and apparatus, she bit her lip, obviously struggling with her emotions. Mom was never one to cry a lot, but now she's doing it almost daily. But this time she kept her composure. She told me, quite sternly, that I was spending too much time in the lab, just as I did when I was a boy, just as my father used to do. She said at this rate I'd never find a girl, never get married.
At bedtime, with this in mind, I recited a poem from the 1890s by Constance Naden, to see if Mom would laugh (she didn't), and to see if she would remember reading it to me (she did):
After I told Mom the name of the poet for the second time, she said, That's right, you just told me. I guess that little madman inside my head, Al Zeimer, needed to know again.
After she fell asleep I returned to the lab, where I sat, head in hands, thinking about the little madman inside her, the turner of the kaleidoscope. Where did you come from? And why? A creaking sound, as if in answer, made me jump. In her white gossamer nightgown, Mom shimmered through the unlocked door like a ghost. She gave me a big kiss, thanked me for staying with her, said she loved me and would be lost without me. She then slipped away without another word.
January 10. I was talking to Mom tonight, repeating something she had not remembered from five minutes before, and for some reason got close to her ear to say it, as if this would make the message stick. In mid-sentence I stopped, suddenly thinking of the 'memory holes' from Orwell's 1984, the slits or openings scattered throughout the rooms and corridors of all the buildings. You simply had to lift up a flap and drop an item in and it would be 'whirled away on a current of warm air to enormous furnaces hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.' They were part of a scheme to control the past, to control all records and all human memories-so as to control the future. As I was speaking into Mom's ear, I began to see her memory loss as a war inside her, a dystopian war with enemy soldiers rampaging through the ventricles of her brain, committing acts of sabotage, snipping this and torching that, controlling her by erasing or distorting her memories-so as to control her future. And I realised that my mission was to annihilate these enemy soldiers-with chemical warfare, biological warfare, whatever it takes.
But do I have what it takes? The brains? The courage? For there is fear to conquer too, not of defeat (the odds are so stacked against me) or even the memory of past defeats, but of friendly fire, of killing the patient with the cure, of the death in ambush that lies in every pill.
January 12. My mother's decline can be measured in acrosses and downs. When she was well, hooked on crosswords in the Globe & Mail, she could do them in record time, in unwavering ink capitals. Then I noticed the occasional phantom row-written in invisible ink I madly hoped-then more white squares than capitals, then an orphan word pencilled in here and there with many more around it erased, and finally nothing at all, the newspaper unopened...