AUTHOR: Paloma Díaz-Mas
READER’S NAME: Félix Lizárraga
DATE: May 8, 2017
Lo que olvidamos (The Things We Forget) is a little puzzling at first. It opens as a loose, somewhat disjointed, and apparently artless recollection about the first diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease of the narrator’s mother. There is a slightly crude, non-fiction flavor to these pages that made me look the title up to make sure that what I was reading was a novel. Little by little, though, this initial fog started to lift, and I realized that the appearance of disjointed, raw artlessness was nothing but a cunning artifice, and that the author knew exactly where she was going.
Where is she going, exactly? That is not an easy question to answer. The book is structured as a catalog (complete with numbers) of anecdotes and reflections around the theme of memory. When the mother is finally placed into an assisted living facility, the unnamed narrator meets there several people similarly affected, among them a man who tries and fails (but without knowing that he is failing) to complete a jigsaw puzzle. This man intrigues the narrator, especially when she finds in her mother’s apartment (while preparing to sell it) an old newspaper about the so-called 23-F attempted coup, in February of 1981, and she recognizes (or thinks she recognizes) the jigsaw puzzle patient as one of the Spanish Congress deputies.
None of this matters much, however. The novel advances smoothly but by association, without a real plot –much like the workings of memory itself. We only learn that her mother’s apartment (where the narrator also grew up) has been already sold when she finds in a gallery a hyperrealist painting of the family room tiles, presumably made by the new owner. We learn precious little about the narrator, her family, even her ailing mother. The novel instead focuses on a seemingly random sequence of vivid memories, some of which are the narrator’s own, and some of which are her mother’s or her grandmother’s, passed on to her. Some of those memories are dramatic, like those of the coup, or her mother’s experience of the Civil War; some are small and intimate, and seemingly meaningless, but no less vivid. There are gaps in those memories, and some attempts to fill in those gaps. The old people in her mother’s ALF are minutely described and seem alive to the reader, yet they are a mystery, and an insoluble one at that, as they have no memories. Most of them do not even remember their own names.
I spoke of Alzheimer’s before, but the novel never explicitly mentions the name of that terrible disorder. The novel uses the unnamed illness and its threat as a springboard to meditate on issues of memory, solitude, and the self. The language stays deceptively simple, even colloquial, equally avoiding the clinical, the explicitly philosophical, and the overly poetic. The whole novel, however, feels very much like a slow burner of a poem, or maybe an Escher mezzotint, only half deciphered, but beautiful nonetheless.
Paloma Díaz-Mas (Madrid, 1954) is a researcher of Medieval Spanish and Sephardic literature, as well as a prolific novelist, playwright and essayist. Her many books include the novels El rapto del Santo Grial (The Kidnapping of the Holy Grial, Anagrama, 1984), and Lo que aprendemos de los gatos (What We Learn From Cats, Anagrama, 2014). This reader did not know anything about her before opening the pages of Lo que olvidamos. Now, however, I will definitely look up her other books.
Lo que olvidamos is a novel that richly rewards the patient reader, and I highly recommend it.