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Testaments to the Power of Our Imperfect Memories


Whenever a regime tumbles, among the first steps a regretful nation takes in trying to turn its horrors into history is to form a commission devoted to "truth and reconciliation."

By now, the phrase has acquired a self-evident ring, as if seeking one automatically leads to the other. Historians, journalists, judges and psychoanalysts are conditioned to believe in the cleansing power of truth. But, as artists like to remind us, people often prefer to live by the light not of facts, but of carefully constructed fictions. We arrange history--our own, our country's, our heroes'--to supply ourselves with necessary myths.

A quartet of entertainments suggests at least two ways of going about the powerful and perilous process of dealing with memory, which is always imperfect and incomplete. One is to turn a recollection into a relic, allowing a few ancient, golden days or an experience of victimhood to distort and pollute the present. The other is to adopt an adaptable past, preserving memories but making them subject to constant revision.

"What is the past but what we choose to remember?" asks Ruth Young, the narrator of Amy Tan's new novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter." Her mother, who is slipping into Alzheimer's disease, gives Ruth a chronicle of her Chinese childhood that is shot through with brilliant detail. No matter that it is also shrouded in eloquent mist; the sheaf of pages written in Chinese represents a vivid and fluid repository of memories, which change according to their possessors' needs.

Stephen Sondheim's newly revived "Follies," on the other hand, provides a stark example of the tyranny of a rigidly remembered past. The four protagonists--two former chorines and the stage-door hangers-on they married--meet again at a theatrical reunion amid a welter of regret. Their memories, though vague, have become immutable and totemic, their presents ossified as a result. A kiss given 30 years ago represents all the roads not taken; a hoary squabble stands for a lifetime of mistakes. The glory days of show business come to represent all the wasted possibilities of callow, prewar youth.

When "Follies" first opened in 1971, its parade of antique styles was mistaken for nostalgia, its symmetrical arrangement of failing marriages confused with a conventional plot. But "Follies" is about the way the past can set us up for disappointment--it is about the opposite of nostalgia. Today, the original "Follies" has metamorphosed into an honored classic, and its stripped-down revival seems calculated to conjure up fond recollections of a candy-cane premiere. In 1971, some critics found Harold Prince's production a wasteland of empty tinsel. Thirty years later, his successors holler for remembered opulence. Nostalgia is seductive poison, Sondheim never fails to point out, but it's a damnably difficult lesson to learn.


The film "Memento" likewise addresses the perils of invoking a past that is simultaneously incomplete and unbending. Lenny, who has lost his wife and his short-term memory in the course of a horrific crime, spends his days in pursuit of vengeance, guided only by a pocketful of mnemonic Polaroids and the "facts" he has tattooed on his body. Unable to remember anything new for more than a couple of minutes, he must solve a dozen mysteries a day. He finds himself in a woman's bed and scrambles for clues as to who she is; a gagged and grunting captive materializes in a closet and Lenny has no idea how he got there. He lives in utter solitude, unable to form bonds of trust or experience, unable even to fix a face in his porous mind.

Like those zealots in the Balkan wars who invoked 14th century battles but forgot the neighbors they had lived alongside, Lenny is programmed--he clings to a few old but treacherous memories and ignores everything else. Consequently, he is driven by a mission that he can never fulfill, because he will never remember having done so.

If "Memento" is a parable about holding fast to the wrong recollections, the film "Keep the River on Your Right" is a paean to wisely selective remembrance. This keen and poetic documentary has at its center Tobias Schneebaum, an elderly amateur anthropologist who claims to have once been a reluctant party to a cannibal feast in the jungle of Peru. Accompanied by a film crew, he retraces the path he walked into the wilderness in 1955 in search of the tribe he lived with for seven months.

Like Lenny, Tobias has photographs--pictures of painted natives whom he recalls by name--and the legacy of a trauma. Like Lenny, his perceptions are untrustworthy. Before the excursion to Peru, we follow him to New Guinea, watch him reconnect with a former lover--a toothless old man--and wonder whether their linguistically handicapped relationship ever went much beyond the rudimentary. Later, he discovers that the Peruvian tribesmen's name for him, which he took to mean "the Ignorant One," merely means "come here."

But Tobias is deeply nourished by his fantasies and benign misapprehensions. He yearns for a place where homosexuality runs free, and he finds it. And if the meat he tasted might not actually have been human, the long-held sense of self-revulsion that forced him out of that jungle and drew him repeatedly to others nevertheless embodies a deep psychological reality. Tobias in his old age is reconciled, if not exactly to the truth, then to a fiction that serves him well.

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