Memories Lost, Reechoed, Acquired

This week I inadvertently went back to myself a ten years ago through film and book. To memories I have, to memories I learnt and to memories that left me. 


It’s been nearly a decide since I read Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. When Hemingway came up in conversation during the week, and I defended The Old Man and the Sea, and look over at my bookshelf, and opened the only book of his there, Fiesta, I remembered nothing. Sure, there were delicate imprints of Paris and Pamplona, but anything past the most geographic of details was gone. Perhaps I had not grown out of the intense, time-condensed reading of literature at university, perhaps I had been shocked by its casual anti-Semitism, perhaps I hated those indolent self-indulgent Americans and English aristocrats. Or maybe it was the style: at the time, I was under the spell of one of my favourite writers and fellow Modernist, Thomas Mann, whose complex curated sentences are the closest I feel you can come to scuba-diving in prose—between each breath, it seems you’ve seen the whole world. Hemingway had prose more like coloured blasts of light and felt nothing like this. Today this non-causal itinerancy seemed subficial, not superficial, and the prose crackled within me in the image-upon-image descriptions of travel across Navarre, or the dialogue of Frances’s calculating takedown in Paris or the drunken conversations in Pamplona.

But no matter the crackle, no sentences ever echoed through my memory—whatever I read had been long forgotten. 


The echoes came later in the week, when I watched Oskar Roehler’s film from 2000, No Place to Go (its German name, Die Unberührbare, the untouchable, is far better). I must have last seen it at university. I loved it at the time—and love it still in the delicious hypocrisy of Hanna Flanders, a West German “communist” novelist, who shops at Dior, who has a minimalist apartment in Munich with stylishly place photos of Lenin writing, of Lenin in Red Square, whose artifice falls apart with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Who knows if they were quotations I’d learnt for an exam, but there were phrases that had an electric sting and a resonance, as though they’d found the shadow of their twin deep within me. There is a scene towards the end of the film, where Hanna sits motionless and looks out onto the moving pedestrians of Odeonsplatz in Munich, that made me gasp at the memory. There’s the expanse of Berlin sky at sunset called its own reimaginings of sunsets that—sitting in Cambridge and looking back on Berlin—I must have remembered from evening commutes on the U-Bahn.


Commuting and motion is one of the motifs of Walther Ruttman’s 1927 film, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, a film I’d heard a lot about studying German film, but had not seen until this week. I imagine that it’s been called a meditation on the city; but to me, with its sometimes urgent music and doors opening, doors closing, trains arriving and leaving stations, bread coming out of an oven, a roller coaster on its tracks, washed dishes, actors being applauded, all without the safety blanket of narrative, it felt more like a visual workout. And the city I lived in appears both recognized and unrecognizable. Trains still string themselves through the city on elevated tracks, some buildings have the same blank façades, but they don’t swarm around the cathedral like that, the people don’t crush around the trams in the same way. The images made the memories emerge, but distorted as if through a fairground mirror, where I recognized the memory because I knew this was the same place on the map where they’d been created. But nearly 90 years on, is the city, or any city, the same? With just image and no context, might I have imagined them scenes in Hamburg or Vienna or Bucharest? Do cities just sit on the same geographies, while we rely on a collage of memories to make them our own?


My [redacted] is enough for business transactions, for humour: I say what the language wants, not what I want. Her laughter. I am the victim of my small vocabulary.

Homo faber, Max Frisch

Anyone who knows me will know I speak more than a couple of languages. Living as a foreigner in Brazil, this comes up most days and it often doesn’t take long for someone to ask me how it is I speak Portuguese “so well”. It’s a mystery to me, as much as to them[1]. This post might sound from a boastful enumerator, but I hope it doesn’t: I’m far more an embarrassed tallier.

Language is a landscape—and each one is different.

Mountains upon mountains  (Jardín, Colombia)

Mountains upon mountains
(Jardín, Colombia)

There’s one I used to speak, can no longer understand, that’s like a faded winter leaf: I can remember words, no meanings, but the intricate mathematical grammar hangs in its skeletal lace. Another sits in a jar of formaldehyde.

Another one, Russian, I worked in once and read in sometimes, but never without a dictionary for half the words. It feels like a misty hillside with a plain below where the slow-blown air sometimes clears and sometimes closes in. Or perhaps it’s like that scene towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, staring out over a snowy Breughelian vista.

The ones I feel I speak best, the irony and minor keys of German or arid, intricate, yet lush Spanish, are so much topographical, like a Caspar David Friedrich painting or the early sun over the Colombian cordillera, where ridge upon green ridge stretches to the horizon with the regularity and crunch of collapsing Toblerones.

Portuguese is different: I have a compass and a car, I am a navigator and have travelled far, but I know I’m on a wide savannah, where half my made-good turns were flukes.

Perhaps it’s familiarity and experience, perhaps it’s the mind-bending visions that come from literature, perhaps I have a synesthetic perception of these things. Or maybe it’s the range of lived emotion that spreads these maps of altitude: the most important relationships of my life (family, friends, lovers, partners) have been in English, German, Spanish. These are the languages that have made me ecstatic, made me cry. Will the same happen with Portuguese? Perhaps, or maybe it will always be a language on the flatlands, where words start to fade as soon as they’re touched and turn into gabbling shadows that sound, at a distance, like English, German or Spanish.

[1] The biggest mystery of all is how some people hear an accent from Portugal, where I’ve not been for 15 years and where I’ve never spoken Portuguese.

The cordillera(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

The cordillera
(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

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