ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"The Art of Memory" by Ricardo Nirenberg

 Alana Kerimova translated this page into Kazakh:

For over two millennia, from the poet Simonides to the seventeenth century, there was an Art of Memory, whose techniques and marvelous tricks, history, achievements, and arcana, are now forgotten: it could not survive Galileo, Descartes, and modernity.  As a child I had not heard of this art, yet I did experiment with my own memory, learning by heart arbitrary lists of items, or the Mendeleev table, or by playing chess blind; when I was six or seven, my cousin Hugo, two years older, would act as master of ceremonies and show my remarkable retention skills to an audience of relatives or even to strangers at summer resorts.  Hugo used to call it “magic” and announce it grandly.  Today it is called “rote” and looked upon as a downright dumbing and useless activity.

Thus, in the present market it might be inadvisable to present to the reader, right away and without more ado, something that pretty soon my story will require: a list of my uncles and aunts.  They must be introduced slowly – keep it user friendly –, each uncle and each aunt accompanied by some notable detail so their names may be more easily retained.  To start with, my uncle Juan.  He was the father of my cousin the master of ceremonies, and so hirsute on the trunk that when we were all on the beach he would take his hands to his chest, as if he was Tarzan of the Apes about to scream, and show us his hands full of freshly pulled light-brown hair.  That impressed us children and gave us quite a chill.  But one evening my sister Olgui impressed him and left him openmouthed.  We were many at dinner table when suddenly, from one end my sister calls our uncle on the opposite end: “¡Tío Juan!”  And Uncle Juan: “¿Sí, querida?”  And my sister: “Kishn tókhes arán!”  This means, “kiss my ass, inside” in Yiddish, and it was totally out of line for a little girl to say it to an uncle, but she did it in all innocence; Juan/arán: she could not resist the richness and preciousness of the rhyme.  Well, Uncle Juan was married to Aunt Anita, who died early, when I was twenty or twenty-one, of a botched operation.  I am trying to find something notable to say about Anita.  The best I can do is, just as I did with my uncle, point to the chest – my aunt’s pair of breasts, which, according to my mother, were what my uncle really found attractive in his future wife. 

I have just touched on one couple, one set of aunt and uncle with their children, and there are two more such on my mother’s side and three others on my father’s.  I’m afraid this isn’t going to work.  The story, or rather the remarkable experience I want to tell, is about the art of memory, and not, unless very indirectly, about my uncles and aunts.  And now that I think again, no uncle is required and only one aunt, Tía Sarita.  No need to dwell on Uncle Natalio, the eldest and wealthiest, or on his wife Aunt Rosa.  Nor on their sons, my cousins Davel and Alberto, even though from other points of view all four were important in my life and dreams.  My aunt Sarita was the youngest of the four siblings: Natalio, Juan, my mother, then her.  When I was already walking but too young for school, three or four, Sarita got married: soon I learned from my parents, that (a) Tío Isaac was a Litvak, a filiation that appeared to be comparatively inferior to ours or perhaps suspect, I don’t know why; (b) his marriage to Aunt Sarita had been negotiated by a shodkhen, something, I was given to gather, not as desirable or noble as going out and catching a husband by yourself; and (c) whenever the adults played poker, which was quite often, I always heard my parents afterwards complaining that “Isaac sits on the chips,” which misleadingly suggested to me an image of my uncle sitting upon the table and telling his true mind to everyone, as in the Yiddish proverb “tókhes afn tish”, but by which my parents intended to mean that, if he was ahead, Isaac couldn’t be induced to bet just for the fun of it but would hold tightly to his gains.

Returning to Tía Sarita, the aunt I loved most, even though when I was just born and she saw me, she burst into sobs because I was so ugly.  In her excuse, Sarita was easily excitable, a quality that made her especially dear to me: one may say that she took people and events seriously, and neither was nor pretended to be indifferent – if her nephew was ugly, she sobbed.  To my very young eyes Tía Sarita’s most notable characteristic, besides her earnestness, was her slimness; her neck was long and bony and reminded me of the chicken necks my mother liked to chew on.  Indeed, when she was about eighty, toward the end of her life, Sarita always complained of “my cervicals.”  That is my most recent recollection of her.  My oldest is watching in amazement how she scratched her inner ears.  She would flex her little finger and introduce it in her ear – the way most people do and the reason why it’s called the auricular finger, just as the index is called the nasal finger, the middle the anal, and so on – but then she followed it by a motion so violent of head and hand, and a sound so savage that it seemed her brains were being shaken like spooky maracas, and that she was going to emerge out of that rumbling a different person, rearranged.

Now circling around each of those couples of uncles and aunts who were like major celestial bodies, there were satellites that became visible only when you were visiting the house of that particular uncle and aunt.  Chez Natalio and Rosa there was a bunch of women with unusual names: Anira, Alomis, Neiré – this last, young and pretty, was Aunt Rosa’s niece.  There was a German guy, a goi, who lived with Anira, and dark rumors circulated about his European past.  Not a few of those minor characters were meteors or shooting stars rather than satellites or dependably recurrent luminaries.  A few times, when I was ten or eleven, I saw a guest at Uncle Juan’s parties who looked atypical: he was smallish and bright eyed, he wore a beard and a yarmulke.  Nobody in my extended family wore a beard or a yarmulke.  My cousin Hugo told me that the man was his tutor for his up-coming bar mitzvah, and he added, “Why don’t you get a tutor and have a bar mitzvah too?  With your memory, it’d be easier than a walk in the park.  And you’ll receive lots of presents.”  I thought it was a brilliant idea.  When the time came, though, and I turned twelve, the situation at home had deteriorated and had become so difficult that the last thing I would have dared to do is ask my parents for a bar mitzvah and a Hebrew tutor.  About that critical year, my life’s thirteenth, I hope to write a candid and accurate account at some time (it better be soon), but for now I must go back to the art of memory, and to that end I must mention another character, a satellite of my aunt Sarita who was her friend from school days.

Her given name was Raquel: that I have never forgotten.  But what was her family name?  The other night, lying on my bed, I realized that I didn’t remember it.  Now, if you were to ask me the name of my cousin Hugo’s Hebrew tutor, I would dismiss the question as outlandish: I don’t remember ever having heard or seen that little man’s name, and I am not a miracle worker.  But Raquel, she was not a mere meteor but a beautiful moon around Tía Sarita; I had seen her often and had heard her last name pronounced several times when I was a boy, so I decided I should exert my utmost and recapture it.  You might conclude, rather unfairly, that it’s a long way down towards decrepitude from playing blindfold chess to trying to remember a semi-forgotten name, but you ought to take into account that more than sixty years have gone by, and anyway I hope to persuade you that there is no less magic in recapturing a name than in steadily picturing in your mind a chessboard after the first fifteen moves.

I often lie in bed trying to remember things.  I don’t recall exactly when this habit started, but I suppose that at some point in old age you feel that life is evaporating, slipping away, and then you try to hold on to it, put a cover on the boiling pot as it were, by recapturing the past in small portions and making it present again.  So I lie in bed, exercising my memory.  When it is a name I’m trying to remember, usually, at some points, I go through the alphabet slowly, letter by letter, to see if one of them clicks in a certain place, frequently the initial place.  The click is perceptible, like that of a snap closure, and then sometimes, though by no means always, the rest of the word follows in a flash, and with it a cloud of remembrance previously invisible.

The case of Raquel, Tía Sarita’s friend, was particularly hard to crack; what makes it interesting, though, are the unexpected and psychologically revealing byways it took me through.  I’ll try to be as precise and faithful as I can in my description, and will even run the risk of being dismissed as naïve for appearing to believe that we humans are able to describe our own states of mind, our inner processes, in any detail or with any semblance of scientific detachment.  I was in bed a few nights ago, as I said, trying to remember Raquel’s last name, and I started alphabet hopping for the initial letter: I was under the impression that the most likely candidate was F.  I was not certain, however, for it didn’t click, but just floated in my mind – f… f… f… – as a possibility.  It occurred to me that I might be confusing Raquel with another woman named Feinstein, a satellite of some other aunt (perhaps Rosa), or else with the U.S. Senator for California, or with a combination of those.  About the ending of Raquel’s last name I could be a bit more positive: I thought it might be something like maer; but then again I was not sure, and there was always a possibility of interference from Lijtmaer – “Fatso” Lijtmaer was a physics student at the University of Buenos Ares when I was studying math.  About the rest, the middle part – let me call it the kernel of the name – I had no idea, and no matter how long I tossed on the bed or replaced one pillow by another, I couldn’t get the least inkling, far less a click.

That night I didn’t go any further.  When I fell asleep I was feeling exhausted.  The next day I did not focus on the problem, I mean, of course, consciously: what went on underneath I have no way to know.  The following night, once in bed, I took it up again, my battle against forgetfulness.  I summed up what I had found the previous night: the name I was after did not start with a vowel.  If it didn’t start with F as I first thought, it had to start with some other consonant.  I proposed to inspect the consonants once more: first the stops, then the liquids L and R, then the fricatives, the sibilants, and finally the nasals.  Secondly, it seemed fairly certain that the name ended in maer or in aer.After another careful inspection of consonants, I felt I had gained a small step (but one never knows, in these battles, whether a step is small or decisive).  The step was that now I considered F and B equally likely as initial letters.  So I decided to keep them both floating and balanced in my mind as I proceeded.  But before I focused back on the task, I had a short moment of distraction, or rather of distension, and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro came to my mind for no apparent reason: I had not heard nor talked or thought about that opera for quite some time.  I became alarmed when almost instantaneously I realized that I could not recall the name of the beautiful adolescent who asks the Countess and Suzanna to see if there’s love in his heart: voi che sapete che cosa è amor.  Was my memory totally gone because of such prolonged mental effort on Raquel’s name?

If now I can claim any special skill in the art of memory, it is because of the decision I took next: to search in my mind for both names at the same time, that of Raquel and that of the Mozartian Adonis.  An unreasonable decision at first blush, decidedly going against Descartes’ method and Leibniz’ Principle of Sufficient Reason, but one that made the solution to the original problem possible, indeed easy.  Still holding up to my attention the few clues I had so far about Raquel’s name, I started going through the lyrics of the opera to see if I could find the name of the boy.  Very soon I hit on Figaro’s farewell, “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso…” and a few seconds later, “Cherubino alla vittoria, alla gloria militar!”  The name was Cherubino!  Amazing how the music helps to remember the words, and ipso facto the letters.  Then, in a flash, I saw that the kernel of the name, Raquel’s name, was CH, a consonant I had omitted on inspection but which Cherubino had unveiled.  And finally, brilliantly, in no time, the whole thing came together: her name was Bachoer.

I can hear some smart aleck objecting, “Wouldn’t it have been much simpler, in that case, to think of Bach instead of Mozart?”

Benighted soul, you are thinking in terms of math and information theory: indeed, the name Bach contains many times more information on the name Bachoer than Mozart and his opera.  You forget, though, that I didn’t think of music in order to get at the solution: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – and not music in general nor Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion – happened to come to my mind suddenly, unbidden, unexplained.  You must think that memory is a science, not an art.  Like King Knut, who wanted to be obeyed by the waves, or like Descartes, who pretended to keep away any bad dreams, you must be a control freak.

In retrospect, however, and just to please you, I will attempt some causal explanations, but you must keep in mind they are based on the cloud of recollections that descended on me later, after the fact.  Raquel Bachoer had light, long, curly hair and a pretty face, much like a Gozzoli angel: it is quite possible that she and her name were entangled in my memory with angels, hence with Cherubino.  But it is also possible that Cherubino was rather entangled with memories of myself as a boy entranced by this woman, twenty years older, like Cherubino by the Countess.  The two alternatives do not exclude each other.

Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.

Return to Offcourse Index.