Wholly human: captures the imperfection, fragility, ephemerality, fragmentation of memory
Our memory is like dust: imperfect, fragile, ephemeral, fragmented, and Gavin Chait’s novel Our Memory Like Dust perfectly captures what it means to remember, how it feels to remember, and why, in times of crisis, it’s imperative to remember if we’re never to repeat the crimes of our collective pasts. Crises of all kinds, from the environmental to the humanitarian, are also like dust: a moment ruptures, the fragments fly, they fall for a long time, drifting through the light-shafts of human consciousness, until they fall into place in history, and we live in an era exploding with them.
Chait captures the dust-like drift of crisis and memory in writing moving with poetry and precision, and it’s never felt more prescient. Set decades into an unflinchingly familiar future, it follows those fleeing, fighting, and desperate to find refuge from an Africa devastated by conflict, but this is a novel as diverse as the continent itself: it’s sci-fi, dystopian, and speculative, but from the opening epigraphs, it’s also frighteningly familiar and uncomfortably current. Much of the action moves with a migration crisis, but Chait approaches it from a mythologising perspective: a weaving of voices, mother-tongues and folktales that elevate it from a war-torn drama to a interwoven mix of the mythic and the modern. There’s something modernist, almost Eliot’s The Waste Land-like in the devastated, dusty landscaping of the Sahara desert, and, like The Waste Land, ‘out of the dead land’ sprouts ‘memory and desire’.
Debris floats for a long time before it falls into place, and the fragmented opening infused with temporal shifts is, at times, frustrating, but through it Chait has captured the fragmentation, the imperfection, of memories: they fall apart before they fuse together into a picture man can understand; Our Memory Like Dust suggests that stories and crises do the same. Chait manages to craft a temporal setting that seems both modern – with its technologies and timely relation to the ‘real world’ – and mythological, with storytelling that seeps out of its history and into the story at hand; the effect is wholly human, reading the novel is what it feels like in the moment of remembering, and it’s no mean feat.
In a discussion of his creative influences, Chait references Akram Khan, a contemporary choreographer who does his own mixing with mythology and the migrant crisis: in a commission for English National Ballet, Khan reimagines the classically canonised Romantic ballet Giselle against the migrant crisis, and uses echoes of music and movement from the mythic echelons of the original in his creation. Our Memory Like Dust shares those echoes of classicism and mythology, but, like Khan, deconstructs it and creates something more harrowing – and more human – out of the dust. For, as Our Memory Like Dust demonstrates, not only is memory imperfect, fragile, ephemeral and fragmented, but so is humanity. Like dust.