The Elephant's Memory Revisited

Recently a friend forwarded to me a quote by Umberto Eco on his reading habits: If they are different than me, he said, I hate them, and if they are like me, I hate them. It reminded me of what Nora Barnacle said when, after his death, she was asked what her husband, James Joyce, read. He mostly read himself, she said. There's a glimpse of this in the Brenda Maddox biography Nora, in which Nora remembers lying in bed and hearing Jim in the next room, chuckling over the manuscript of Finnegans Wake. If you write, you do have to spend a lot of time reading yourself, if only to free yourself, by publication, of what you have written ... and even then you might find yourself going back to recall what it was you did put down. I had this experience yesterday, picking up Waimarino County, just to see how it read. I got as far as page 8 before the first shock of embarrassment and shame. It was this passage: Next morning we went up the mountain. To get there you have to pass the elephant's grave. The ghost of Rajah stands gate-keeper to that entrance to the Tongariro National Park. He came with Wirth's Bros. circus back in the 1950s and remains because he ate tutu berries in autumn when they are poisonous to animals ... almost every 'fact' in the last two of those four sentences is wrong. The elephant was called Mollie, not Rajah (circus historian John Sullivan told me Rajah was a name given only to lions); obviously, Mollie was a she not a he; the circus was Bullen's, not Wirth's; it was probably tutu foliage, not berries, that Mollie ate; and tutu is poisonous over the summer months rather than in autumn. The version in the book is the one I grew up with, imperfectly remembered in the family; it took quite a lot of research, most of it not done by me, to establish the real story, which could itself make the subject of a book that, who knows, one day may be written. Meanwhile ... what to do? If it was a blog post I would just go in and alter it but you can't do that with books. I could annotate my own copy, if I didn't have a superstitious horror of inscribing printed pages in my execrable hand. And that wouldn't change the fact that the erroneous version is the one that all other readers of the book are left with. It seems to be without remedy for the moment, unless this post is a remedy. That first paragraph on page 8 concludes: I remember as child going to look at the mound of dirt; perched on top was a tiny bunch of flowers, bittersweet, so funny, so sad. This memory, which is still vivid in mind, may also be false. Newspaper reports of the event mention that a white cross, not a bunch of flowers, was placed on the grave mound, apparently by a circus clown. How can you erase a false memory? If I ever return to the subject, all I can do is put the two versions, the memory and the newspaper report, side by side ... and yet I doubt that anything will shift my five year old self's quite possibly delusive image of a faded, wilting bunch of flowers on top of a huge mound of yellow-brown earth there on the other side of the railway tracks in Brailey's Bush at Ohakune Junction.


artandmylife said...

I am so intrigued by such "misremberings" and the space where memory, perception, fact and fiction merge. whos to say the flowers weren't there though (along with the cross)

Martin Edmond said...

If I close my eyes I still see flowers - no cross - perhaps that came later. I'm pretty sure the grave had just been filled.

Elisabeth said...

I can understand your shame, Martin, at getting the 'facts' wrong. But who's to say the 'facts' are correct anyway.
If we can't trust or own memories what can we trust?
I have ordered my copy of 'Waimarino County' and look forward to reading the memories of a five year old boy, among other things. I believe I will trust the five year old boy and his emotional truths and memories more than any adults and their historical facts.

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