Saturday, 7 May 2011

Memory gain


In preparation for our next book club meeting (next Tuesday, 10th May, 6pm), I thought I'd write a blog post with my initial thoughts on our current book Hash, by Torgny Lindgren. Please leave any comments and points for discussion in the comments field at the bottom of the post!

I hope you all enjoyed the book as much as I did. I hope you were all as surprised and bemused and disoriented by it as I was. And I hope you all have as many contradictory, exhilarating thoughts about it as I have.

What most interested me about this book was its fascination with memory and how personality and imagination can add new dimensions to it. To me it seems that one of the major ideas explored in Hash is the way in which one adds to one's memories to make them one's own. The embellishments with which imagination turns memories from dry events and facts into stories, personalities and visions.

The 'journalist's' imagination creates imagined memories that are inseparable from reality. As he says in his letter to the newspaper editor at the beginning of the book: "You contrast imagination with truth as if the two were incompatible, as if they were mutually exclusive, as if imagination itself were not a product of reality." Our guide's imagination takes us on a journey through personal memories of Västerbotten, in Northern Sweden. His path takes in its cultures, through food, illness and friendship, and its through its landscapes, on an imagined motorcycle.

Through the imagined truth of Lars' and Robert's search for the perfect Swedish Hash, we explore the characters' fascination with food, as well as the community's memory of it (think of Ellen's hash, which everyone swears is the finest in the area, although no one has actually been brave enough to try). Their surety of its greatness is a product of hearsay, and of its heavenly smell. To consume it (as Lars finds out), is to allow oneself to be consumed. Imagining how it might taste is the only lasting truth.

The many layers of memory, real and imagined, create a rich web that is not easy to untangle. Linda's search for Avaberg succeeds only through an imagined map, and though she finally finds the rich seam of gold, it is contingent on the journalist's modest admission that "Imagination is my memory". It is difficult to understand where in the novel Linda's prospecting begins - I might be misremembering it, but it seems to have little pretext in the earlier part of the book. Still, I found this quite exhilarating. The book is almost like a related dream. Stories dissolve into stories, which themselves double back and turn into other stories. Defining a clear sequence of events is far too tough a task for the newly-awakened narrator.

The underlying discussion of life in an old people's home added another aspect to the narrative. For many, he path of aging passes through memory loss to oblivion, a process that institutions try to impede with drugs and therapies. For the journalist, the memory gains he makes through writing his imagined memories are themselves impeded by the authorities that supervise his care.

At every turn, this novel seems to be spinning a web of lessons to learn, and ideas to unravel. My reading of it was confused and perhaps a little superficial, if intrigued and delighted. I wonder how others interpreted it - leave discussion points below as comments, and we can explore them when we meet on Tuesday! Also, for those of you who are unable to make it on Tuesday (I know Tom, Emma -who are in Vietnam- and Agnes -who's recovering from major surgery- are all unable to come), please put down your thoughts, and we can make this a transcontinental conversation!

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