Taking the long view

Bangkok-based novelist Christopher J. Moore takes a nonfiction trip through Cambodia and memory

In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory. Impregnated by Zeus, she gave birth to the nine muses with whom artists, poets, musicians, writers and historians are familiar. As a daughter of Uranus, Mnemosyne is also a goddess of time; she provides the role of rote memorisation and invents language and words where her daughters, the muses, pick up and render them. She is a goddess that makes memory alive and is often acquainted with vivid remembrance.

Memory is Christopher G. Moore's subject in his latest book, Memory Manifesto: A Walking Mediation Through Cambodia. Moore, a well-known writer and long-time resident of Bangkok, begins with a thorough research of memory, with psychology and neuroscience. Human beings, he believes, are equipped with two types of memory: semantic and episodic. The first relates to how we remember meanings and facts in language, number or logic, and the latter is autobiographical: memories about times, places, undistinguished emotions or recollection of past personal experiences that occurred at particular places and times. Moore considers these two categories of memory, switching back and forth inside our brain automatically "without missing a beat". Time, place and personal imagined history are entangled in our mind, dancing across the knowns and unknowns in a vast sea of neurons.

Memory Manifesto works by combining stories of these two kinds of memories. As the subtitle of the book indicates, Moore's memorised mandala is Cambodia, a country he has experienced for over two decades. He takes us on a journey of Phnom Penh, a city he sees as "a boxer who's been punched, stabbed … and thrown back into the ring". On the way, he meets with artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, bar owners, sex workers and veterans of Phnom Penh. The stories then poured out like a stream of imagination against the collected memories of Year Zero. Memory, Moore opines eloquently, "is mostly about survival; everything else is a bonus".

In one story, he discovers an abandoned Beverly Hills Polo Club T-shirt behind a nightstand in the no-star Lux Hotel. Time and place set in motion his imagination that the T-shirt could have belonged to a rich American member of the Polo Club. The story ends hilariously after his Google search informs him that the Polo T-shirt is a mass-produced commercial shirt anyone can purchase for US$36 (1,200 baht).

Another anecdote, from 20 years ago, is Moore's remembrance of his English-novelist friend asking him how he pronounced the word "quay". Moore confesses that it's a mystery as to why he would remember this conversation, but he answered "kwai". In 2017, this memory returns to him when he explains to his English friend that "kwai", in Thai, means "water buffalo", and "khee", which is how the English pronounce "quay", means "excrement", and the original word, "quay", is even more problematic, because it means "penis".

A standout passage from Moore's book involves his encounter with the disabled by landmines. This is the legacy of three decades of war that has drastically affected the lives of Cambodians. There have been approximately 40,000 amputees, one of the highest rates in the world. The Cambodian authorities estimate there may be as many as 6 million mines in Cambodia, and Moore writes that it may take another 300 years to completely clear them out. Like a nation that's lost a limb, Cambodia faces the dilemma that even those who placed them do not remember all these years later where they are.

Not all the stories are about sorrow. Moore's friendship with the poet-rapper Kosal Khiev brings a delight to readers. Born in the 1980s in a refugee camp in Thailand, Kosal immigrated to the US with his family, where he joined street gangs at 13 and ended up serving prison time for 14 years. After his release, Kosal was deported to Cambodia, the country that he came from but that he hardly knew. While in jail, Kosal learned the art of rap from his inmate and later enrolled in poetry classes. Poetry saved him. He carried his lyrics to his community in Cambodia. Soon people began to notice this talented young man who turned pain into art. He was featured on the BBC and TED Talks.

Toward the end of Memory Manifesto, Moore questions if the increasing role of digital algorithm and AI systems will have an impact on how we understand memory. When that phase comes in full, we may find the ways in which remembrance and forgetfulness interact and interchange, and how we choose to store memory, may change consequently. For the time being, opening the memory gate through narrative is aesthetically congruous. Words unfold their own myth, and reading Moore's latest book is like being in a dream.

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