September 9, 2004
‘Memory’ Shapes Life and History
"The Persistence of Memory" by Tony Eprile (Norton, $24.95).
Tony Eprile opens up the complex terrain of a changing South Africa in "The Persistence of Memory."
This is an ambitious novel, a novel of many ideas. Eprile is a gifted storyteller who delves into the inner life and family, and also politics, social commentary and warfare. The literary thread that links these different kinds of stories -- whether accounts of sensual meals, embarrassing school episodes or brutal battles -- and propels the narrative is suggested by the title: the way that memory, the act of remembering, shapes life and history.
Eprile writes luminous sentences, and he leavens his serious subject matter with humor. Although "The Persistence of Memory" is a first novel, it is not a first book. Eprile's collection of stories, "Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Tales," was published in 1989 to much acclaim.
For the novel's narrator Paul Sweetbread, memory is his homeland. Sweetbread has the gift of perfect memory, but his total recall is in sharp contrast to the selective recall of most of the people around him. In school, his classmates, with names like Colin Goldberg, Sedgewick Schwartz and Ophelia Birnbaum "have no objection to repeating their parents' histories: to be a lawyer or chartered financial accountant like Dad, to play tennis and attend afternoon teas like Mum. History, memory, is plastic here in R.S.A. You remember it the way you would have wanted it to be, not the way it was."
He's also something of a misfit -- an overweight, sensitive boy (and then man) who is obsessed with food. He gets into trouble in school for asking more questions than his teachers were prepared to answer. After high school, Sweetbread enters the South African army, where he has a hard time with the rigorous regimen and the taunts of his fellow recruits and commanders. He is relieved to be appointed as cook for his unit, and dark humor ensues. On the border, where they are engaged in the secret war with Angola and Namibia, he witnesses and remembers unjust events. Later, he appears before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and reports on what he has seen.
Throughout the novel, memory is manifested in different forms: through the psychoanalysis Sweetbread undergoes as a child after his father dies, the photography and filmmaking he takes up (and takes quite naturally to) in the army, through food and its sensory connections, and through the amnesia of those who prefer to forget. He also writes of libraries as "the greatest of human inventions, a vast repository of collective memory far greater than any single mind could hold."
"The world's first libraries were the savannas and deserts of Southern Africa; the first writing, tracks in the sand."
During the war, Sweetbread encounters bushmen, who are excellent trackers, with their visual memory of how stones, sand and pebbles have shifted.
"Tracks are a form of recorded memory," Eprile said in a telephone interview from his home in Bennington, Vt.
Do memories add up to truth?
"I don't think any one person has a monopoly on truth," he said. "We best get truth from being open to not only our own memories but to the memories of others. Perhaps this is an imaginative leap, to try to have empathy for viewpoints you might not agree with."
Eprile, 49, was born in South Africa, but he promptly points out that his own story doesn't play into the book. He wanted to create a character who came from a more typical middle-class South African Jewish background than his own. Eprile's father was from an Orthodox family in Scotland; he came to cover the 50th anniversary of Johannesburg in 1936 and stayed. His mother escaped from Germany, also in 1936.
While he was growing up, Eprile's parents were very active in anti-apartheid efforts; his father was editor of the country's first mass-circulation newspaper geared toward the black population. When the police, who were suspicious of his father's many contacts, raided their house, young Tony and his brother went to school with their briefcases filled with their father's sensitive papers. Soon after that, in 1968, the family left South Africa and traveled to several places before arriving in the United States in 1970 and then settling here permanently in 1972.
"Anyone who has left his or her country is inclined to think, 'What would I have been like had I stayed,'" he said, adding, "Maybe there is a phantom Tony Eprile."
Eprile has been back to South Africa, most recently in 1992, and he follows events there quite closely.
He presents South Africa as "a kind of mirror for Americans to see an exaggerated version of certain issues and trends in America itself." Among the parallels he points out is that between the Vietnam War and the war with Namibia, also known as "Nam."
Eprile's father died in 1993; his mother lives in a South African Jewish enclave near San Diego. And while he feels at home with the accents there, it's not his community. Eprile, who teaches writing, said he feels most at home with "writers who are misfits," and then added, "fiction writers are misfits."