Translated from the Slovene by Rawley Grau
Slovene novelist, Sebastijan Pregelj’s slender novel, A Chronicle of Forgetting is a beautifully written book, expertly translated by Rawley Grau. The prose is clean and elegant, allowing Pregelj to experiment with hidden meanings and images inherent within the text. The novel is set in a Slovene nursing home and focuses upon a small number of residents and staff members who we see through the eyes of one elderly male resident. It is divided up into four sections, including an opening section narrated by the main protagonist at his own funeral and a final section narrated by an unnamed carer who might be representative of the man’s inner life. The novel closes with this haunting statement, delivered over the man’s deathbed.
“You are what has happened and what is yet to come.
You are life as it is.”
Perhaps these words can be read as a kind of key which unlocks the entire novel. This is a book where time itself is extremely fluid. As the narrator’s Dementia develops, he slips backwards and forwards in his reminiscences. His past life and regrets blur with the present as he attempts to make amends for the mistakes he’s made. At times it’s unclear whether these grand gestures have actually been made or are simply plans the man is making for a future he might not live to see. He enjoys a romance with an elderly female resident though it’s also unclear if this only takes place inside his head. As the novel progresses, he -and by proxy the readers he speaks to- becomes increasingly confused between reality and imagination. There are several occasions within the novel where he might be experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations, common to certain types of Dementia, or he might be narrating a real experience. I enjoyed the way Pregelj refuses to patronise his readers and leaves the interpretation up to them.
Some of the classic tropes of Dementia narratives set in care facilities are absent here. There’s very little evidence of residents being infantilised. In fact, the narrator goes out of his way to emphasise his independence and the good relationships he has with staff members. He does talk at length about the physical aspects of ageing and deterioration. He describes the effects old age has had on his body including weight loss and incontinency. I was also glad to see one of the first explorations of sex between older people living with Dementia I’ve come across during my reading. However, Pregelj avoids language loss as an associated issue. The narrative voice is strong and coherent throughout the text.
As the title would suggest A Chronicle of Forgetting is primarily a book concerned with memory; how memory is lost, what we remember and how accurate our memories are. It’s a beautiful, meandering gentle read which left me more hopeful than most Dementia narratives do. There’s a real sense of urgency running through this narrative. The man is not naïve. He knows he’s losing his grasp on reality, but he chooses not to panic and to make the most of every minute he has left.
“Forgetting will swallow up my memories, bit by bit, until eventually I forget who I am, where I came from and why I’m here. But before that happens, I hope that for a few moments I’ll be able to put the world around me out of my mind and, without fear, sail away to somewhere else.”
A Chronicle of Forgetting was published by the Slovene Writers’ Association in 2019