Friday, June 8, 2007

Tony Eprile's "The Persistence of Memory"

Tony Eprile is the author of Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Stories, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and The Persistence of Memory, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and was listed as a best book of 2004 by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his acclaimed novel and reported the following:
This page is a somewhat anomalous one, since it happens to open in one of those transitional places in my novel: when I’m moving my protagonist from a sheltered Jewish childhood into his experience as a conscript in the South African army. POM is set in my birth country of South Africa. It’s a sort of fake bildungsroman, its central conceit being that the protagonist has the gift — or, as he thinks of it, curse — of a perfect memory in a society that is constantly erasing and rearranging its history to suit the current ideology. My desire was to see what kind of political consciousness can arise from memory and an interest in memory alone, to explore the various ways that memory is recorded and also falsified, and to comment on three decades of particular turbulence and change in South Africa’s history.

I’m chuckling as I write this, as I just returned from a three-week reading tour in the Middle East, traveling with four other writers. We gave a lot of readings — to students in Syria, Jordan, Ramallah, and elsewhere — and, inevitably, our intros to our own writing started, through repetition, to sound canned. We had been bounced around the back of a van in Istanbul in stifling heat, our guide yelling at the driver who seemed to be taking in ever tighter circles, until we rolled up to Bosporus University and were rushed an hour late into a classroom full of eager Turkish students. Near delirious from lack of sleep, I launched into my spiel prior to reading a short excerpt, only to hear my traveling companion, Daniel Alarcon, crack up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I could complete your introduction myself.” Later, Jane Hirshfield fell asleep while Daniel was reading, to the visible delight of our audience. We gave the Turkish students quite a show — a useful demonstration of the silliness and humanness of writers. Which brings me back to my novel, which I hope includes much silliness and humanness within the dark events of South African history.

On page 99, my narrator recalls biting into a scone that had been invaded by an unseen bee that stung him on the upper lip, “which promptly swelled to several times its own size so I came to resemble one of those primitive tribesmen who has stretched his lips with wooden plugs in homage to some fat-mouthed god.” As a neophyte in the army, he sees himself as one of many “chrysalids in the process of transformation, and it was the army’s aim and delight to beat hell out of whatever personalities we had arrived with….” And there you have the novel, with South Africa’s insect life representing the wildness of its indigenous inhabitants, a bit of anthropology thrown in, and the absurdity of the events leavening the pain and brutality that lies always under the surface of this world.
Read more about The Persistence of Memory at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue