"The Rememberer," a short story by Johanna Skibsrud - Macleans.ca
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“The Rememberer,” a short story by Johanna Skibsrud

When scientists discover a young girl has an exceptional memory, she is forced to be a back-up information drive, saddled with over 200,000 years of human knowledge. But is the load too heavy?


 
Author Johanna Skibsrud. (Colin McConnell/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Author Johanna Skibsrud. (Colin McConnell/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Granta, the British magazine of new writing, has devoted its Autumn issue to Canadian writing. The Canadian guest editors, novelists Madeleine Thien and Catherine Leroux, chose 28 pieces of fiction and nonfiction, including this short story from Johanna Skibsrud, winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

“The Rememberer” by Johanna Skibsrud

The Archive was indefensible and security breaches were at an all-time high when a girl (six years old, and in every other respect quite ordinary—living with her extended family somewhere in the banlieues) was discovered with what could only be described as a ‘virtually limitless’ power of recall. With 200,000 years of accumulated knowledge at stake, there seemed no better solution than to rely, once again, upon the faculties of the human mind.

Of course, they had to admit from the outset the idea was flawed. That it was, at best, a ‘temporary measure’. But it was generally agreed—even by those scientists, historians, administrators and policymakers who (all bent on arriving, respectively, at a more sustainable solution) did not generally agree upon anything—that if properly educated, this remarkable young girl might buy them all a little valuable time.

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A rigorous and fully funded education program was quickly provided by the state, employing a team of researchers from every imaginable field. The ‘Masters’, as the team of thirty-seven came to be known, instructed the girl in every stage of the development of human thought covering every topic, every method, every (often conflicting) angle and approach to science, art, technology, trade and history itself over the past 200,000 years. The girl’s appetite for knowledge proved so voracious that by the time she was nine years old her ‘memory’ extended back to the beginnings of human life on Earth. By eleven, she could remember rising from the mud; by twelve—with a reflexive shudder—the moment the first unicellular structure divided into two; by fourteen (and in not only accurate but moving detail) she could describe the conflicting pressures of gravity and time that caused the Earth to strain and shift, that set the continents adrift and gave birth to mountain ranges, ocean beds, polar ice and magnetic fields.

The fact that the girl was—aside from her extraordinary memory—really quite ordinary was not at first considered a disadvantage. She’d been removed from her extended family shortly after her genius was discovered—her only influences the thirty-seven Masters—but throughout she continued to demonstrate the usual range of human emotion, both delighting and confounding her Masters with bursts of frank affection, unreasonable anger and unexplained joy.

The programme had been named Whirlwind III after the first real-time computer system to benefit from the invention of core memory, but not only (the Masters boasted) did the girl already possess more core memory than any computer operating system that had been designed, she was also adaptable, fiercely loyal and unusually empathetic—three things still lacking from every other system of record-keeping, including the most advanced forms of AI.

As the girl grew older, however, her passions became less predictable, as well as less easy to temper. During an especially volatile moment at age fourteen, she even threatened to end her own life. (‘What do I care?’ she shrieked at the Masters. ‘They’re your memories—not mine!’) The Masters did what they could to hush up the incident, but, inevitably, word got out—and the backlash was fierce. Up until this point, the program had received wide and popular support; millions had happily followed the education and development of the bright-eyed, red-cheeked ‘Rememberer’ in the tabloids and the weekly news, but now nearly everyone began to complain. It was obvious (many early critics of the programme warned) that the burden of 200,000 years of accumulated knowledge was too much for any human being. It was inhumane—another especially vocal group argued—to invest ‘the full range of human experience’ in a single child precisely because it prevented her from actually participating in ‘the full range of human experience’. No wonder the girl was increasingly troubled by insomnia and alternated between fits of rage and despair! No wonder that she had threatened to end her own life—and with it every possibility of establishing a more permanent record! No wonder that—shortly after, when she turned sixteen—she began to suffer from brief, inexplicable flashes of ‘darkness’! (Petit mal seizures, the neurologists called them—but, upon further examination, no physical or biochemical cause could be found for the episodes and it was concluded that ‘nothing’ was wrong.)

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The Masters fought among themselves, each one blaming another for the girl’s emotional volatility and her ‘absences’, which (despite the doctors’ prognosis) continued with increasing frequency. Each time they occurred—without explanation or warning—the girl would be unable to speak and, for several terrifying seconds, her face would go blank. Each time, 200,000 years of accumulated knowledge would flash horribly before the Masters’ eyes.

And it was no wonder. Ten years had passed since the programme began, but still those (scientists, historians, administrators and policymakers alike) dedicated to arriving at a more permanent solution were no closer to finding one. The girl remained their only hope . . . and yet the situation was hopeless. The public still spoke out from time to time, but as they began to lose interest, it was the girl herself who became the programme’s toughest critic—describing its limitations as ‘insurmountable’ and ‘systemic’, uniquely tied not only to the limits and vagaries of her education, but also to her own mind.

What should trouble them most, she protested, was that she was unable to pinpoint where one memory left off from another—or where they began. Rather than a continuous, chronological archive, her memories were instead fragmented, scattered, often vague. They would surface strangely, like photographs in a chemical bath—transformed into negative images of themselves. But rather than—like a photograph—indexing any actual experience, they seemed instead to mark a void.

And what (she demanded one day—chin jutted, eyes sharp and hard; the very ‘picture’ of adolescent impudence) of memories that could not be indexed at all? That were instead mere whiffs of sensations, brief bursts of colour, a feeling of being pricked by something—of ‘going under’, as beneath a sudden wave? What in fact were those memories, or any others (in which, say, she scoured the depths of the first oceans, or awakened in the mind of a cephalopod as the simple contrast between darkness and light), if not the products of someone else’s imagination? What she ‘remembered’ was in any case not knowledge. It was speculation, conjecture . . . It was the purest of fictions!

In other moods, she would grumble that she ‘hardly saw the point’. The history of human thought, she would sigh despairingly, was nothing more, after all, than an arduous dream. In still other moods, she would become fierce, aloof. Only to brighten a moment later, laugh out loud, or surprise someone with a firm embrace.

Emotional turbulence was, of course (the Masters reasoned), an unavoidable side effect to the girl’s demanding course of study. What else could they expect from a young woman capable of grasping—simultaneously—both Cantor’s continuum hypothesis and mathematical Platonism? Or of recalling—in excruciating detail—what it felt like to die in battle both as, for example, a proud defender of the Orange Free State and as a Basotho child? It was for this reason, after all, that the human mind had evolved to remember only selectively. For this reason that experience became symbolic, then relative, that memories receded, that they sometimes altogether disappeared. Forgetting was as simple a defence mechanism as sex, or flight, the evolution of which (as the girl concurred) could be traced back to the very origin of the species . . .

It is not, perhaps, so surprising, then, that as the years continued to pass, and the question (how best to preserve 200,000 years of accumulated knowledge?) remained unanswered, it also became less pressing. Enthusiasm for the program had long since waned, funding was siphoned to more immediate projects and concerns, and the girl continued to suffer from brief, interruptive flashes of darkness. A general despondency and a sense of collective defeat settled over the twenty-two remaining Masters—though some optimistically maintained that the ‘flashes’ marked not a limit, but an as-yet-unexplored direction for the program. They implored the girl to describe—as minutely as possible—these periods of ‘absolute darkness’, hoping she might offer some clue as to what was on ‘the other side’.

She always left them disappointed.

The problem—she explained—was that she could never quite recall the darkness as it actually occurred, but only in relation to what happened next . . .

The less optimistic Masters coughed—or shifted uncomfortably in their seats. For some time now, it had been gallingly difficult for the girl to recall anything abstract—especially anything of a precognitive nature—without falling back on the bad habit of metaphor. She had also become increasingly prone to either conflating events or recalling only their general themes—and it was irritating even to the optimists among them that she insisted on relating everything from the limited first person, as if the whole of human history had actually happened to her.

Inevitably, whenever these shortcomings were discussed, one of the Masters would—in a wry voice that was deliberately impossible to read—remind them all that ‘Whirlwind III had never, after all, been anything but a temporary solution’.

‘Yes,’ another would reply dolefully. ‘And since we’re no closer to a better one, perhaps it’s time to start with a clean slate?’

‘And do away with 200,000 years of accumulated human knowledge?’ another would gasp. ‘Even accepting that “the record” has undergone, in the last few years . . . ahem . . . a slight process of revision, it hardly seems like a decision one could reasonably make.’

‘We’ve simply invested too much time and money into this program to pull out now,’ another would confirm. And that would be the end of it—at least for a while.

One day, a philologist spoke up. She was among the more timid of the group and had rarely, until this point, contributed to the debate.

‘It may be,’ she said—into a rare lull—‘that we are overlooking a basic fact.’

Everyone turned, surprised, and looked at the philologist.

‘And what is that?’ demanded an attorney of law.

Ignoring the question—and purposely avoiding looking the attorney in the eye—the philologist continued.

‘Just because,’ she said, ‘the subject of our study has so far been compelled to fall back on metaphor does not mean, at least necessarily, that the memories themselves actually exist that way. Language, after all, is not designed to either imitate or replace, but instead to represent the objects of our experience. It’s a complicated code—purposely indirect. Intended to suggest affinity rather than to reproduce substantial structure.’

‘Are you suggesting,’ a philosopher asked cautiously, ‘that the subject is merely a veiled reference to the object?’

‘That she exists only as a sort of cypher?’ a cryptanalyst put in excitedly, ‘which, if properly decoded, could point us towards the unbiased historical record, which, as you seem to be suggesting, and despite our inevitable biases—beneath it all—actually exists?’

‘That it is just a matter of getting—beyond language—to what the language was designed to simultaneously obscure and convey?’

In a voice that suggested that the conversation had strayed, a psychoanalyst turned to the ‘subject’ herself, who (though forgotten) had been present all along, and asked her to recount her earliest memory.

A statistician groaned. ‘And what will that prove?’

‘Shhhhhhh!’ a poet replied.

A deafening silence ensued and, after several minutes had ticked slowly by, even the optimists began to assume that the girl was suffering from another petit mal. Either that, or she simply had nothing to say.

But then—so quietly that some of the Masters failed to hear—the girl said a single word: ‘Imagine.’ And then nothing more for such a long time that even those that had heard began to suspect that they hadn’t.

‘Imagine,’ the girl said again. ‘Imagine you are looking at a painting of a landscape and suddenly you are not yourself at all, looking at the painting of the landscape, but you are the landscape itself. Or the small glint of light, for example, on the waves in the far corner of the landscape’s frame . . .’

As she spoke, her voice began to gain confidence, then speed. ‘Imagine being just that,’ she said. ‘Just the brushstroke—without thought to the brush, or the hand . . .’

When she had finished speaking—and though they had come no closer to a solution, and nothing at all had been ‘proven’—the Masters were forced to admit, once again, that despite the girl’s ‘episodes’, an incurable dependence on metaphor and a tendency to lapse (as above) into near-uninterpretable lyricism, her capacity for retaining—and sometimes expressing—the breadth and complexity of human experience remained nothing short of extraordinary.

‘And that alone,’ remarked a physicist, by way of closing, ‘is a reason to continue the program. One does not, after all, pursue science, or any other worthwhile human endeavour, with anything like a “guarantee”. One pursues it only with the sense—a sense that all of us have had, at one point or another, here—that one has touched upon the extraordinary.’

Despite—or because of—the Masters’ continued, if faltering, faith, the girl was increasingly plagued by flashes of darkness and fits of dread. She imagined being subjected, at an undesignated point in the future and by an unknown adversary, to some terrible inquisition—and wondered how much, after so many years of silence, she would be willing to withhold.

She was visited by nightmares, hardly slept; her health suffered terribly. Once again the physicians were called, and once again they reported that the girl was in perfect health; that ‘nothing’ was wrong. In the end, she diagnosed her condition herself: ‘the return of the repressed’.

If she only had some outlet, she sobbed—some way of relating her experiences . . . creatively, perhaps! Yes! Perhaps that was the answer! She could translate her experiences—everything she had felt and learned—into something else altogether. She could invent a whole other language if necessary! So that (though perhaps recognizable in certain parts) whatever it was she ultimately managed to express would be utterly transformed, virtually impossible to trace . . .

The Masters shook their heads.

But could they even imagine? the girl cried. Had they no empathy at all?

‘Think of it!’ she begged. ‘200,000 years of accumulated knowledge, and no one to talk to—no one who even tries to understand! It’s enough to drive one positively mad.’

But regulations had only tightened since the project began and the creative arts (as the Masters soon informed the girl) had always been particularly inconvenient for exactly the reason to which she herself referred. It was impossible to regulate. There was simply no way of anticipating if—or in what way—its meaning might one day be interpreted, conveyed or misused.

It was not long after this that the girl did go mad. At least, this was the only explanation offered by even the most optimistic Masters for why—instead of darkness, or faded picture-postcard memories of the past—the future began to flare up suddenly before her, in brief hallucinatory flashes.

At first, she had trouble differentiating these bewildering new ‘episodes’ from the others, but she soon began to notice that where even her most abstract memories always appeared in the guise of some external image, or object, and she could only ever experience ‘absolute darkness’ in terms of what it was not, the future was generated from somewhere inside her, existed only in positive terms, and was hers alone.

And yet, despite the thrill of freedom she felt at encountering—for the first time in living memory—what lay beyond living memory, the first thing the girl foresaw was her own annihilation.

‘There will come a time,’ she announced to the Masters one afternoon, ‘that, for the precise reason that you once honoured and celebrated my tremendous gift, you will turn against me.

‘Even now,’ she warned, ‘I have already become too dangerous for you, and my memories—rather than a resource or a point of pride—have become a risk, a liability. Even I cannot tell you what, if captured, I would or would not say. I am, after all, only flesh and blood—no more resistant to abuse or simple boredom than any one of you . . .

‘Who knows what little it might take to make me talk? As you know, I have complained often of my own great loneliness—my urge to unburden myself of all that I know . . .

‘This will occur to you,’ said the girl, sadly. ‘It is occurring to you now. Very soon, the risk will strike you as simply too great for the sake of the simple past. There is, after all (you will think) the future to consider . . .

‘And this is it. Before our adversaries have the opportunity to do so, it is you who will destroy me. You will end what you began, having come no nearer to your goal. And I cannot blame you.

‘Because—when I think back to everything that has happened, to all the decisions I made, or failed to make; to the wars I helped to win or lose; to the thousands of children I bore, to the mistakes I made, the lovers I lost, or, against my better judgment, kept; to the ideas I had and discarded; to the faith that was born, then lost, then born again—on so many different occasions, and in so many ways . . .

‘When I remember what it felt like to be a simple splash of light on a painting of a landscape I have never seen—to be just that simple contrast between darkness and light—to be the product of every imagination, and every hand . . .

‘When I remember what it felt like to be just an empty waiting thing, when there was nothing to wait for, nothing yet to begin . . . I cannot blame you. Because at every moment there is only one decision, and that is the decision made by every moment—in deepest ignorance—as it returns to what it has not yet been.

‘You will make this decision, just as you have made every other:

in perfect darkness. Because that is the future—which I have seen and foretold.’

The Masters bowed their heads. They felt embarrassed for themselves, and for the girl, and then ashamed. Because somehow they all felt certain that what she said was true.

Finally, the oldest among them cleared her throat. ‘If you are right,’ the old Master said, ‘and the future is—by contrast to the present or the past—of our own making, why choose to speak of your own demise? I cannot help but be reminded of the old tale—I forget where I heard it now . . . the tale of the bridge, across which you were permitted to pass only if you told the guard in advance where you were going and why, and swore on oath that whatever you said was true. If you swore the truth, you were permitted to pass, but if you swore falsely, you would die on the gallows. There was no chance of pardon.

‘One day, a young man came along who swore an oath before crossing that he would die on the gallows. His oath perplexed the judge and jury, because they knew that if the man was allowed to pass freely then he would have lied—and so, according to law, must die; but that if they hanged him, he would have been telling the truth—and so, according to the law, must be set free . . .’

‘I am afraid,’ said another of the Masters, rising and glancing nervously about—including in the direction of the girl, though she did not appear to be listening—‘that this long story is not at all to the point . . .’

‘On the contrary,’ the old Master said, ‘is it not possible that we are faced, once again, with the decision of whether or not to bind ourselves to truth by death or to pass by lies? As well as with the questions, which path is more honest in the end? And by whom, or by what, are we judged?’

 

Excerpted from Granta 141, published 9th November, 2017. Copyright (c) 2017 Johanna Skibsrud. Published by Granta Publications. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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