The Man Who Tried to Remember | Makarand Sathe
1. In Joseph Heller’s hands, Achyut Athavale might have been named Yossarian. In a mirror image of Heller’s catch-22 paradox, where a US Air Force pilot claims to be insane and thus proves that he is not, Athavale presents a persuasive case for not being out of his mind, only for an institutionalized society to prove that he is out of his mind.
2. A public intellectual who is not afraid to take a position on every
The Man Who Tried to Remember: Viking, Penguin India, 237 pages, Rs 399.
issue of the day, Athavale frequently propels his own mind towards a collision of ideas. Being a relentless logician, he takes all decisions and acts on strictly rational principles.
3. Athavale is the extraordinary central character of Makarand Sathe’s The Man Who Tried to Remember—translated into English from the 2003 Marathi novel Achyut Athavale Aani Athavan translated by Shanta Gokhale. An architect and playwright, Sathe uses both skills to construct a many-layered narrative about a public intellectual who is determined to face the consequences of his acts.
4. At one level, the name of the novel is drawn from the fact that Athavale spends the final period of his life reconstructing his memory after having lost it for some time. At another, the title flows from the relationship between memory and the individual, extended to the relationship between memory and society.
5. Society is represented by institutions. Such as the government, the judiciary, non-governmental organizations, the police and companies, etc. Individuals are represented by thinkers and artists. Also by people who are neither of these.
6. Individuals appear to remember the past—recent and historical—differently from society. This creates conflicts. Or so Athavale reasons.
7. This is not a novel in which the reader is meant to identify with any of the characters. For one thing, the characters are driven by ideas, not by personalities. For another, each of them is so coldly delineated that flesh-and-blood readers cannot see themselves—or people they know—reflected. This is a deliberate literary strategy on the writer’s part (think Heinrich Böll’s Group Portrait With Lady). So, because readers are not supposed to empathize with the characters, but only observe them, they get intensely involved with the characters. That is just the way Athavale interprets the world.
8. Athavale does not like long sentences. Is it because he likes breaking down the world into small strings of logic?
9. Athavale kills a man. He claims to have been fully sane when he committed the act (although he did lose his memory earlier). Naturally, the institutions reject this position because it seems such an obvious solution.
10. The events that take place in this novel are not as important as the thoughts that flow through the minds of Athavale and the other characters. Each of them thinks and acts as logically as he does, without being driven by confusing, self-contradictory impulses (therefore, this review cannot include spoilers even if it tries).
11. The Man Who Tried to Remember is a funny novel. By stripping away emotion—except basic instincts like lust, anger and jealousy—it exposes the working of the human brain as an absurdly serious process. Therefore it is funny. But also serious. Athavale is partial to mutually contradictory positions on issues.
12. The novel takes a strong position on the way individuals and institutions think and act. It does this by not taking a position, but by describing external events and tracing Athavale’s thoughts in a way that compels readers to take a position. Which they can do by not taking a position, but by exploring all the possible interpretations. Including those that the author may not have intended (think Franz Kafka).
13.It is possible to read The Man Who Tried to Remember from beginning to end. The chapters can also be read in any other order. The end ends where the beginning begins.
14. Gokhale’s translation, dry and laconic, is delectable. The content is so complex that the entire text is utterly simple in construction. The brevity of the sentences—which Athavale would have loved—signals its beauty.
15. The Man Who Tried to Remember goes where very few contemporary Indian novels even think of going. Therefore, it goes everywhere that contemporary Indian novels go, and much, much, further.
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