Music and Memory

“Now, for instance.”

I was listening to an audio file of someone named John Steele, explaining how experiences could be better fixed in memory by noticing details. Not too many, he cautioned, since the mind can only really deal with five or six discrete elements of information at a time. The trick was to choose perceptions across the senses–not only sights, but smells, sounds, and tactile input. Sitting on the overnight bus from Izmir to Antalya, I accepted his challenge, trying to imprint the moment vividly for future recollections. The moon, just waning, was visible outside the window, low enough that it would drop below the shadow of the skyline, which was marked by a dotted horizontal bar of yellow lights, like a glowing spatter of braille. There was a clock displaying the time in large, crimson digits: around one in the morning. Steele’s voice came through earphones that tended to fall out whenever I turned my head. “Intention, attention, then retention,” Steele was saying. The first step was simply wanting to remember.

One of the books I’d brought with me to Turkey was Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann. Rengin had read it before me, while I was still working my way through Zizek’s Living in the End Times, and she had admired his full descriptions, fixing for the reader the nuances of furnishings in the family mansion, the smells of its rooms, minute details of clothing stitched into his sentences, the verbal tics of every character, all given long passages of high-resolution language, beyond even the usual floridity of turn-of-the-century German literature…and not just that, Rengin went on–later in the novel (after hundreds of pages, and several generations of Buddenbrooks) these minutia are revisited, flowering into thematic importance.

In improv theater such looping reiterations are called “call backs.” They prove that the actors are actually listening to their own performance, and are able to wrap the chaotic spontaneity of unscripted scenes back into a meaningful structure. In the same way Mann, with the dense consistency of his novelistic settings, demonstrates that he is writing not just in language, but on memory. Every line becomes haunted by the whole, charged with recursive and revisionary potential. Whatever is mentioned, given an author or improviser of sufficient skill, will return, like a stone thrown into the sky. “It’s like he remembers everything!” Rengin said.

John Steele’s voice in the earphones told me that memory, like the moon, and like historical periods or empires, comes in three phases: emergence, abiding and…(he paused, I remember, looking for the word, which I found a wonderful, unintended illustration of his point)…memory degrades, morphing, falling away. Modern society, his voice argued, is fixated on the second, abiding, phase. Education is based on the retention of an ever-increasing array of facts, with greater demands for accuracy, at the expense of creative interpretation. Computers, Steele said, are emblematic of this paradigm, with their inhuman ability to indiscriminately store enormous sets of data. Like the character Funes the Memorius in the Jorge Louis Borges story, they are pathologically unable to forget. The CIA or NSA equally epitomizes this attitude towards information: they know everything, but cannot think. Academia, it occurred to me, can be seen as likewise stymied by its compulsive need to cite and legitimate every idea with a precise and documented lineage, constantly tripping over its own footnotes, unable to perform the poetic act of what Harold Bloom calls misprision, or the creative misremembering of precedent.

“He also says that memories stick more if your recollections are based around a theme,” I said to Rengin around two or three in the morning, at a kind of gas station/cafeteria where the bus had stopped, “like water.” As I said this, she was taking a sip from a plastic water bottle, recently purchased along with two bowls of lentil soup, one red and one yellow, with a crescent of pita bread. “See, everything he says about memory works just as well for fiction!”

I kept thinking about this mnemonic technique, employing it tin attempts to encode different moments, like when we are swimming in the waves of the Mediterranean: the taste of salt, the buoyancy of the cool water, the bit of islands (ada) in the distance, and the cone-shaped barnacles on the sharp rocks in the small cove that we had found, away from the main beach off a trail through with cliffs marked with rock-climbing spurs, and trees that looked like the Madrones in California, with bright orange trunks under peeling green bark. Water, with flashes of light. There is a book called the Art of Memory (Ars Memorativa), by some greek rhetorician whose name I don’t remember, who recommends remembering the components of a prepared speech by envisioning it in a physical location, with each part of the text represented by an object, so that the arguments could be recalled in their proper order by walking, mentally, through this space. I use this technique when I teach, by the way, lecturing through a landscape of hallucinatory clues and psychic geographies. In my mind, I have changed the title slightly from Art of Memory, to Art is Memory: “in the end / Mnemonsyne is the only muse.”

We were walking around Olympos, looking for a place to stay, or a “pansiyon,” as they were called. It was around noon, and we were caught under the heat, Rengin’s feet developing blisters she would carry for the next few days. The road made a wide loop around the village of Ciralı, at the foot of the mountains where the Yanartaş, or burning rocks flamed with the story of the Chimera’s defeat at the hands of Bellaphoron. We took a wrong turn and ended up in a field filled with pomegranate trees and the silver dome of a mosque. The directions of the woman we met led us back to the main road, through the unpromising backyard of another farm. Maybe it was then we started talking about music. At some point on the trip I told her about how the oldest literature was always based in song: The Odyssey and Illiad were sung to a lyre by itinerant bards, their verse-structure and accompanying melodies making them easier to remember. Walking along the road around Ciralı, I said that “some people’s minds are like filing cabinets, with the information they need easily accessible. I can remember a lot of things, I think, but not on demand. With me, it’s more like thousands of pages scattered on the floor, and I’ll be walking along, and pick up whatever sticks to my foot.”

Later, at Rengin’s parents’ farm-house in Foca, as a reddish just-after full moon was rising, and we were sitting drinking Rosemary (biberiye) tea (I had just dug four holes to plant new Rosemary plants in), I thought of lines from a poem I wrote a decade ago in Romania, something like “in future years / these cold nights will rise / in the water glass of memory / like insects trapped in cubes of ice.” In the warmth of the evening those lines had thawed and broken lose from that previous epoch in my life, like a bit of an ice-berg in a burning climate. Rosemary, I told Rengin the last time we drank that kind of tea, is good for memory. I’m not sure if that is even true, or where I might have learned it, other than the lines in Hamlet where Ophelia, giving away a bouquet of dried weeds, says “rosemary for remembrance.” Not the most reliable source, since by that point Ophelia has gone mad…


We were looking for a new pansiyon, the day we walked along the road, because the music at the one where we were staying was intolerable. The speakers from which it was played in the evenings was located near our cabin, and we would have to leave, finding somewhere else to be until the dance/pop nightmare back at our rooms had ended.

I have said before that I am reluctant to make qualitative claims about literature, assigning any one book a higher value, objectively, than any other. You can learn something, in my view, from any written text. Also (as the wandering nature of these posts suggests) books can accrue meaning in the way that they become linked, inter-objectively, with other narratives, either literary or personal. With music, though, I have no problem making absolute, qualitative distinctions. Some music, like what they were playing at that first pansiyon, is bad.

What in normal circumstances could only be called dance music was, in Turkey, standing around music. In some cases I found this charming: in bazaars, for example, off side-streets in Istanbul, each individual seller would have their own blasted techno-beat trying to induce the state of hysterical near-epilepsy thought most conducive to purchasing, so that by walking past them the different songs—all in basically the same key and tempo—would blend in a kind of locative remix. I was amused to see an old man, with the typical mustache and sleeveless shirt, calmly drinking tea in the middle of the afternoon next to a speaker blaring out dance music with lyrics like “old folks complain / ain’t gonna stop the sound / gonna party all night long…” Meanwhile this Ottoman septuagenarian was blandly tapping his foot, completely unphased by music that had long since been leeched of the last traces of rebellion it may have once contained. When bad music becomes truly irritating is when you can’t walk away from it, or when it can’t be escaped. Lying on the bed in the pansiyon, somewhat sick from too much sun and sea, the idiotic thumping of the synthesized, poorly-written pop songs, I felt more isolated and out of touch because of music than I ever have because of language.

Music is the key to remembering, or the key in which our memories are composed. It is the longest river. Of all the senses, sound is the one I am most sensitive to. Ring tones get stuck in my head on endless loops. There is no such thing, for me, as background music–it colors everything, creeping to the fore, notes crawling into my ears like spiders. The sound of mosquitoes is worse than their bites. I like or don’t like cheeses, even, by the way they sound against my teeth. Several times in Turkey songs got stuck in my head, bouncing from one side to the other as I tried to fall asleep. My stomach had little problem adapting to a new environment, but my ears proved especially prone to virulent infection. It wasn’t Turkish music I found objectionable–it was the sounds manufactured in the United States, shipped oversea like the pesticides too toxic to be legal where they are produced. That night at the pansiyon when I was suffering from the bad dance music, our solution was to go to a bar and hear songs actually played by instruments. When we got back, the family of the owners of the pansiyon, drunk on Raki, were passing around an out-of-tune guitar, which was a definite improvement.

Maybe the argument I’m about to lay out is simply a rationalization of preference. It has to do with repetition, and the possibilities of difference.

Take just one beat in the kind of song I detest, a fraction of a second, and compare one part of the sound wave to another. There is already a lack of variation, a synthetic resemblance between parts. Take any two measures and you have the same thing. Dum-pa-dum-pa-dum-pa-dum-pa, over and over, with minimal development. The song, internally, is a tedious reiteration of a formula, with complete aversion to risk, and lack of imagination. The musical ecology in which pop/dance music exists is a mono-cropped landscape, like an Iowan field of Monsanto corn, stamped with the pesticidal imprint of corporate homogeneity that extends down into its DNA.

The melodic/neurotic idiocy of commercial songs is symptomatic of the industry that produces them–like every other industry in the age of mega-conglomeration, the music business is controlled by five or six major players. Remember what John Steel said about the mind only being able to hold five or six elements in its attention at a time? The similarity is no coincidence, because the culture of empire is to reduce all transactions and thoughts to a single (false) consciousness (E pluribus unum), a melded mogul-mind that can be modeled, predicted, and manipulated. The same problem of diversity loss that is so critical in biological systems is occurring also in information systems–we are all humming the same stupid tunes. Five or six agri-businesses produce everything we eat. There are fix or six Universities that really matter, from which all other institutions take their cues. There are fix or six major banks, and so on. Everything is similar, so it can be similarly controlled. When a song is recorded or produced, it is no longer live, no longer living, and every time it is played it will be exactly the same. The culture of remixing, sampling, and sharing is beginning to chip away at this nightmare conformity–which is why it is illegal.


So this is the stand I will take, the effort towards which the energies of my life will be directed: restoring possibilities of variation, adaptation, improvisation, and difference.

If you take a pop song a single moment of it can be shown to represent its lifeless uniformity. Let me contrast that to my favorite passage from Buddenbrooks, a description towards the end of the novel of sickly child Hanno at the piano. He had earlier been described as not especially talented, but with a “fondness for improvising, without notes” (484). In writing, as in music, the only opportunities for true gracefulness comes from incorporating mistakes into larger structures–of adapting, in the moment, to unexpected vibrations, echoes, and harmonics. “What was coming?” Thomas Mann writes, describing Hanno in the middle of one of his fits of inspired and melancholic communicating with the keys. “…there was an assembling, a concentrating, firm, consolidated rhythms; and a new figure began, a bold improvisation…Signals sounded through it; yet they were not only signals but cries of fear; while throughout, winding through it all, through all the writhing, bizarre harmonies, came again that mysterious first motif, wandering in despair, torturingly sweet. And now began a ceaseless hurry of events whose sense and meaning could not be guessed, a restless flood of sound-adventures, rhythms, harmonies, welling up uncontrolled from the keyboard, as they shaped themselves under Hanno’s laboring fingers. He experienced them, as it were; he did not know them beforehand” (587).  Mann is describing his own writing, it seems, as well as Hanno’s playing.

There is a video of a soloist playing a violin, interrupted by a cell-phone (the same sequence of notes we have all heard a thousand times, like we have all seen dogs pissing in the same way on sidewalks). The violinist paused, giving away nothing by his expression, and then incorporated the awful commercial melody in to what he was playing before–adapting it, breaking it down, metabolizing it into the texture of his own experience.

Trying to take his example, attempt to rid myself of the unwanted musical hooks in my head by working at them, nudging them into other songs I like and know how to play, because if I can hear music not just with my ears but with my fingers, I can improvise, tweak it to remove the signature or brands. I learned to experiment with music, I think, as a way to defend my brain from invasive jingles.

In the small town of Kamal one night, where we were staying with Rengin’s grandfather, there was a nearby wedding, and the drums went on for hours and hours. It didn’t bother me. The thumping, though repetitive, was human. The worst song, if I only have to hear it once, is still my friend, while the best song in the world, played a million times on the radio, becomes my enemy. One of the evenings of our last week here, when the sun had become less intense, as we were wrapping mesh around grape vines to protect them from birds, I pulled my earphones out, because some neighbors, out on their porch, had started playing acoustic guitar. Yes, it was out of tune, and no, they didn’t really know all the words to “Wish You Were Here,” but they were people, and I could hear into their lives, and I wasn’t bothered by a half-conscious guilt (like that which had been leaking through the ear-phones) that I had downloaded their songs illegally.

Rengin is probably tired of hearing my theories about music. Walking to the beach, in yet another city in Antalya, past various storefronts spurting electro-loops like leaky spigots, washing us in sound as we went by, I made the claim that I have no interest at all in commercial music, or any MP3 that I have to pay for. When I listen to them, all I hear is money. All recordings of music should be free, I argue (with typical hyperbole) and musicians should make their money on tours, by giving concerts or busking streets. “What is the difference between selling music,” Rengin asked, “and selling books? By that logic shouldn’t authors give away all copies of their novels?” I thought for a moment, and smiled. “Yes,” I said, “all books should be free, and writers should make their living from singing their stories.” That is how things started, after all. Greeks with their lyres, traveling troubadours, who were fed because they held in their throats the reputation of their hosts–who could turn you into a legend, or a joke.


Marshal McLuhan pointed out that only about a third of what can be called book history is print history, as such. Following the analogy of music, one wonders if the Gutenberg galaxy of movable type really contains more information than what existed before, or if an existing ecosystem of information was just flattened (pressed) into a multitude of conforming copies. Book history, too, is only a tiny fraction of narrative history, so it might be equally true that as soon as stories began to be written, the number of total stories began to decline. Maybe, though, digital technology (along with the open source movement) offers an antidote, a chance to finally reverse the strangling constrictions of cultural imperialism and global capital.

It is easier to carry audio files, I’ve learned, than it is to carry books. It is true that things I listen to on my MP3 player enter my mind at slower speeds—I can read faster than I can listen to someone talk—but on the other hand, when the abstract symbols of words are transformed into the actual tonalities of a human aurality (like the difference between popular music and real music) words have more meaning, and are easier to remember. A spoken voice retains something of locality, of sound waves (or the sound of waves) moving through the air.

The beach in Antalya was a museum, where you could not only swim, but explore on foot the ruins of a thousand years, with temples, tombs, and battlements. From the small shop by the gate at the entrance to this beach (which we would duck under that night, after we sat out on the sand past closing), I bought an actual, physical volume called: 1453: Constantinople, the Last Great Siege.

Traveling in Anatolia, I was impressed by how much of the history we think of as Western is actually rooted in the East. The Trojan war? Happened in Turkey. Santa Claus? Turkish–a 3rd century priest from Myra. The Chimera, already mentioned, was sleeping in a nearby mountain, along with other mythic beasts. We conveniently misremember that “Greece” and “Rome” were actually Asian and African empires, and this is as important to their culture and mythology as the geographical places that carry their names today. Christianity? For a thousand years, the capital of the Byzantine empire was what is now Istanbul. Hagia Sophia, one of the best known mosques in the world, had a much older history as Saint Sophia, an orthodox church.

Reading Crowley’s book, I became more convinced of something I had long suspected: rather than religion being the cause of war, war is, in a way, the cause of religion. Theological doctrine, throughout history, has served as a pretext for slaughter and conquest that would otherwise be unthinkable. Nationalist ideologies work the same way: flags were invented to cover the corpses made in the quest for empire. 1453 pointed out several aspects of the siege of Constantinople that didn’t fit with the usual understanding of a religious contest between Christianity and Islam (two monotheisms that are, aside from superficial differences, virtually identical). For one thing, the Byzantines were culturally and ethnically more similar to the neighboring populations to the East than to the uncouth crusaders tromping onto the stage from Germany, France, or Italy. The real sack of Constantinople, in fact, had already been carried out in 1204, when crusading Italians plundered the city, leaving mostly a shell for the Ottomans to pick over. For another, many in Mehmet II’s army (later Fatih, or conqueror) were actually enslaved or collaborating Christians, either the dreaded Janissaries or the expendable foot-soldiers used mercilessly in the early waves of the prolonged attack. The essential dynamics of the battle, as I now understand them, were an enormously outnumbered force in the city relying on superstitions and a decayed tradition of Christian orthodoxy, fraying at the edges with heresy and schismatic divisions between orthodox and papal doctrine (which prevented any significant aid from being sent from Europe), against a dynamic Ottoman force led by an ambitious and devious 18 year old. Success was determined not by courage, strength, or even superior weaponry, but by logistical acumen, effective bureaucracy, and the ability to transport the incredible volumes of men, resources and equipment that an extended siege required.


An example of books spontaneously aggregating into a kind of inter-textual narrative with a meta-meaning or value different from its component parts, is this: the unexpected parallels between the pair of books I had already read in Turkey (Buddenbrooks and the history of the Constantinople siege) and two more that I picked up from a street seller in Istanbul. On my last trip a year and a half ago I had, in another astonishing experience of serendipity, found the wonderfully interesting The Night of Kadar from another market in Istanbul: a book I hope, eventually, to get around to reviewing (by Garry Kilworth, published in 1978–has anyone heard of this guy?). This time, from the scant selection of English titles, I chose Roots, by Alex Haley, for a similar reason to why I brought Buddenbrooks: it was long, and would take a while to read. The choice of another novel, The Dark Siege by R.A. Salvatore, was made out of a nostalgic wish to relive the experience of reading the Drizzt Do’urden books that I had loved as a child. I wanted to see how much of the charm of that fantasy world would survive for an adult; the answer, sadly, was not much. To explain why, I need to reference another book, one that I just finished reading here in Foça at the time of this draft: Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. I borrowed it from Rengin’s brother, who had it from an old psychology course. “Literary Critics like to talk about his theories of dreams,” I explained to Rengin when she asked why I was interested in it, “because they map pretty well onto the interpretation of literature…”  You might have noticed how Freud doesn’t so much interpret his dreams as his own dream texts, the narrative of the onieric experience he writes after waking. The analysis of this language, which continues the psychic trajectory of the dream-thoughts themselves, is as important for analysis as the content of the dream itself. As subsequent theorists (Lacan) have maintained  the unconscious is structured like language.

On of the controversial claims of Freud’s book is that all dreams are a form of wish-fulfillment. The Dark Siege, then, can be interpreted as what we wish war were like, as opposed to the brutal, inglorious, nonsensical nightmare that it really is, which Crowley’s The Last Great Siege, in turn, captures so well. In the history of Constantinople, you have religion: the parading of relics and icons along the walls, fanatical reliance on signs and prophecy, and the bitter and ridiculous doctrinal squabbles. In the end, the city falls; Christianity fails to save it. One of the ominous portents, supposedly, before the final attack, was a partial lunar eclipse, just as the moon had begun its waning (forgetting!) phase, marking the sky with the crescent.

In the world of Salvatore’s story, on the other hand, you have magic, which can be read as a wish-fulfillment version of theology, where the rituals actually work, and the efficacy of spells is manifest evidence of a divine pantheon in attendance. Interestingly, just before the siege, there is a “time of troubles” where spells don’t work, and magic goes awry, but by the end of the novel magical order is once again restored, and the city is saved. The rest of the book yields just as easily to analysis as  wish-fulfillment. Rather than Constantinople besieged by Ottoman hordes, in the fantasy Mithrill Hall is attacked by dark elves (goblins and kobolds taking the place of conscripted Christians as the expendable foot-soldiers). Instead of seven long weeks of moving equipment, cleaning human waste, torture, pain, and petty politics, there is a single night of combat, filled with fun, heroism, and laughable dwarven antics. The implicit meaning in the fantasy epic appears to be that war and combat really do produce victories for the righteous. Drizzt is an unparalleled warrior (fighting with scimitars) because he has renounced his evil ancestry, and has a beautiful soul. The dwarves and humans defending the city win because they are good people who genuinely care for one another, and so on. The pleas for help in this case really are heard by the fantasy-world equivalent of Europe, with elves and magic users traveling from far realms to assist in the just and honorable battle. Conflicts, therefore, can in this fantasy world be resolved as they were in Medieval Europe, in trial by combat, where divinity or magic will miraculously intervene to protect the innocent.

In contrast to the noble surface dwellers, the Drow live in the deep and hidden mushroom cities of the underdark, where a matriarchal society of evil, plotting queens oppress male weapons-masters like Drizzt used to be, with the help of creatures called Illithid: mind-flayer types who are (get this) telepathic. In the “time of troubles,” in fact, psionic powers, those based on mental abilities rather than belief in gods, were unaffected. The real enemy in this fantasy, then, is women who know what one another are thinking. Like all military societies, the dwarves must take a stand against the feminine power of understanding, just as the conscious mind protects itself against the dark intuitions suggesting that swords can’t answer everything, by constructing improbable fantasies that superior might always gathers under the banner of what is right. That’s my Freudian interpretation, anyway.

Is it possible that I have finally become more interested in history than in fantasy? The only way to stop real wars, perhaps, is to distinguish between the two. Another book I read over the summer that I haven’t mentioned yet, that I bought in Izmir, is called In Jail with Nazim Hikmet, by Orhan Kemal, about his years imprisoned with the famous poet. Knowing that this blog is read more by people who know me than by those who necessarily agree with me, I should warn you that at times it will be political, and that it may seem, as has been claimed, that I am critical of everything.

Hikmet and Kemal were in jail for spreading communist beliefs, in the early period of the Republic’s history. Unlike them, I won’t be jailed for saying what I think, which is all the argument I need for doing so.


Which brings me to Roots, where the different branches of these pseudo-random and improvised observations on music, memory, and national identity come together. My brother’s organization, written about in the preceding post, is called the Seven Generations Land Trust, referring to the Iriquois saying that one’s actions should be considered in their implications for seven generations in the future. Alex Haley’s Roots recalls a family saga going back seven generations to an African, Kunta Kinte, who was abducted by slave traders while chopping down a tree for a drum. The painfulness of the later parts of the book is offset (those considering reading it should know) by incredibly beautiful descriptions, in the first 150 or so pages, of Kunta’s early life in the Gambia, growing up in a complex society that taught, in addition to the practical skills of hunting, herding, farming, reading and writing, a deeper understanding of the relationship between individuals and their ancestors, descendants, and the natural world. Knowledge is carried by traveling story-tellers and holy men, “griots” and “moros” like those that visit the young men of Juffure–Kunta’s village–during their “manhood training.”

“In his hut after the moro had gone that night, Kunta lay awake thinking how so many things–indeed, nearly everything they had learned–all tied together. The past seemed with the present, the present with the future; the dead with the living and those yet to be born; he himself with his family, his mates, his village, his tribe, his Africa; the world of man with the world of animals and growing things…” (104).

It is tempting to stop reading Roots when Kunta is captured, knowing, in ways the character can’t, about the slave ship, plantation life, and generations of slavery and struggle that would follow. In the same way that Crowley’s book suggested that the conquest of Constantinople (involving a transition from Christianity to Islam) was actually a good thing for the city, revitalizing it as a metropolitan center for culture, trade, and scholarship, Haley’s narrative hints at how terrible the transition from Islam to Christianity (resulting from the capture of people, not a city) was for Kunta’s descendants.

On the patio of Rengin’s cousin’s 6th floor apartment in Finike (where I felt a earthquake tremor for the first time in my life), I was sitting with her cousin, Aunt, and Uncle, looking out over orange trees, green houses, and a shepherd with his flock, and we were doing what comes naturally when people don’t speak one another’s language: pointing to things, and naming them. Her cousin Barısh (his name means peace) would say “çatal”, indicating a fork, or “kaşık” for spoon. Minutes later, he would hold up a fork, or spoon, lifting his eyebrows in expectation, seeing if I could name it. I concentrate on this game, taking it seriously, because I know that this is the only way they will have to measure my intelligence. Weeks later, I was sitting with Rengin and her mother, having dinner on the porch of the stone farm-house, built in the traditional style on a hill lines with grape vines and olive trees. Her mother points to a fork.

“Um…şapsal? I say, struggling, and they burst out laughing–çatal is fork, while şapsal means “silly.” Not for the first time, I have made a silly mistake. Some nights we would sit out on whichever side of the house had enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes away and drink wine, eating cheese, olives, or watermelon. Yildiz means stars, I would think, seeing the word spelled out as a constellation. Dolun Ay, I thought. Full moon. Why were some things easier to remember?

There is a scene in Roots, where Kunta, driving his master’s buggy in Virginia, is teaching his daughter Kizzy African words. He would tell her the sounds for road, or head, or father. “Pointing to a sluggish small river they were passing a little later,” Haley writes, “Kunta said ‘Dat a bolongo.’ He told her that in his homeland he had lived near a river called the Kamby Bolongo. That evening when on the way back home, passing by it again, Kizzy pointed and shouted, ‘Kamby Bolongo!’ Of course, she didn’t understand when he tried to explain that this was the Mattaponi River, not the Gambia River, but he was so delighted that she had remembered the name at all that it didn’t seem to matter” (349). It seems pathetic: an African trying to convey to his daughter something of the knowledge and dignity of her heritage, of which the only concrete reminder will be a few misremembered words. Kizzy is later sold away from her family, as punishment for forging a traveling pass for another slave who is trying to escape. She remembers those few words, though, and teaches them to her daughter, who teaches them to her son, who teaches them to his children, and so on, until seven generations later those few syllables have survived intact to be transmitted to Alex Haley, who consults experts in African languages, and is able, on the basis of those few remembered sounds, to figure out what language his remote ancestor spoke, and where he was from.

Haley explains that “The most involved sound I had heard and brought was ‘Kamby Bolongo’, my ancestor’s sound to his daughter Kizzy as he had pointed to the Mattaponi River in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Dr. Vasina said that without question, bolongo meant, in the Mandinka tongue, a moving water, as a river; preceded by ‘Kamby’, it could indicate the Gambia River” (625). To those few words, and the oral tradition that preserved them, all of Roots owes its existence. The author is able to follow the trail of his family history through archives, ships’ manifests, and bills of sale until he finds himself in the Gambian village of Juffure where the novel started, listening to traveling storytellers like those from whom the young Kunta had learned.

Rengin read Roots after I finished. I was impatient for her to get to the end so we could talk about it. When she did, it was her who pointed out that I needed to include this quote, when the author hears about griots, who are keepers of ancient oral chronicles going back hundreds of years:

“seeing how astounded I was, these Gambian men reminded me that every living person ancestrally goes back to some time and some place where no writing existed; and then human memories and mouths and ears were the only ways those human beings could store and relay information. They said that we who live in the Western culture are so conditioned to the ‘crutch of print’ that few among us comprehend what a trained memory is capable of” (626).

“Isn’t it cool,” I said, “how the griots won’t perform unless there is music?” She had complained that after Kunta’s capture while looking for the tree to make his drum, the novel was going to be depressing. “Yes,” I had told her, “but wait until the end.” Travelling to the village where the novel begins, Haley hears in the history of the Kinte clan the name of his ancestor, who “went away from his village to chop wood,” and “was never seen again.” The recitation by the Mandinka storyteller provides the details with which the novel began (which, until that point, the reader assumes were simply invented). The African chroniclers, amazingly, using only music and their minds and voices, are able to encode the past in a way that rivals, or surpasses, what is possible with books.


Ending where you began is, of course, a classical rhetorical move, so let me go back the the mnemonic system I heard about from John Steel through my earphones on the bus to Olympos. The night I was made sick by bad dance music, and made well again by live musicians, Rengin and I walked back to the beach and drank beer from glass bottles, with our backs against rock, burying our feet in the sand as an ineffective deterrent against mosquitoes. I started talking about the memory technique again, how to use five or six salient details. “Now, for instance,” I challenged her. “Try to see if you can remember it. What should we use?”

“That’s easy,” she said, “the sound of waves, the stars, and the lights of that boat.”

I wasn’t satisfied. “It has to be something unusual, like some kind of metaphor. You can’t just say, ‘the sound of the waves.'”

“Well, you tell me,” she said. “You’re the fiction writer.”

I listened carefully, thinking. “Okay, you know how in german there are the dots above certain vowels, like, um, umlauts? How about this: the sound of the waves is like an o, but instead of just two dots modifying the sound, the dots are actually the stars, trillions of them, making the “o” sound something unpronounceable, that only the sea can say.”

There were strange glowing fires that are rising from the visible strand of Ciralı in the distance, like the perpetually burning Chimera rocks (yanartaş), that are actually rising into the sky. “What are those?” I asked. They seemed incomprehensible, like something from my novel, where anti-gravity exists.

“Maybe this is a place where reality and your novel meet…” Rengin said. I noticed another light, like a slowly moving star, start from the other side of the sky, on an intersection course with one of the globes of flame. I was suddenly besieged by a feeling of irrational superstition, like Byzantines watching the sky for prophetic signs.

The two lights drew closer in the sky.


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