Conserving memory

Issue 1/2003 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

One could almost call Birgitta Boucht’s narrative style Chekhovian, even though the tales she tells in Konservatorns blick (‘The conservator’s gaze’) are not fictitious. The ‘gazes’ in these seemingly peripheral, marginal, trivial stories are all essentially rather similar; perhaps this is one aspect of what Boucht calls ‘the conservator’s gaze’: ‘When culture, society and our hopes for the future begin to crack, we automatically turn to our memories and examine them with a conservator’s gaze: at once tender and severe.’ Memories often contain a great deal which is both trivial and of little importance, yet it is precisely these banalities which can lead us to worlds filled with essential matters.

Since her debut as a poet in 1975, the Finland-Swedish writer Birgitta Boucht (born 1940) has published both verse and prose, alongside her work as a journalist, a peace campaigner and a feminist. She received particular commendation for her novel Mariposa (1999), which through her innovative narrative technique seeks to explore the significance of love and memory.

Konservatorns blick (Schildts, 2002), Boucht’s sixteenth book, has the subtitle ‘63 texts’ – in 130 pages. Is it a collection of short stories, memoirs, of mini-essays, reflections or descriptions of a journey? It is all of these things and more: it is an intelligent, well-written, charming little book about travelling, containing short accounts taken from Boucht’s own reflections and her experience of travelling. Each takes as its starting point a selec­tion of trivial, everyday details and expands them into ambiguous stories.

One example of this is the text ‘The Nobel Prize winner and me, Cairo 1989’, which recounts a failed attempt to meet Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo: Boucht could not think what to ask the great author, even though she realises that this is a unique opportunity. The text becomes a meditation on the artificial nature of asking someone questions. In the story ‘Two men, a woman and a lift’ Boucht describes how she found herself in a lift which had stopped between floors with two men: a one-legged Iraqi soldier and a chubby Egyptian businessman. Nothing in particular happens, the lift eventually starts moving again, but Boucht skilfully manages to capture the tension of the moment.

Boucht is not particularly interested in the details of language; on the contrary, language is steered by what she wants to say, and since Boucht is such a competent narrator the language ultimately becomes transparent and absorbing. It reminds the reader of something the American writer Paul Auster once said in an interview: that his greatest dream was to write a book in which the language was so transparent that the reader would forget that the mode of expression was through words.

Boucht’s texts do not reach unexpected places or look at the world in a new way – this is especially true of the reflections which base themselves around the metaphor of ‘life as a journey’. The stories are nonetheless meditative and even convey a sense of meditation and calm to the reader – but, despite this, some of them have such power that one reads them almost holding one’s breath. Without emphasising her own presence. Boucht gets straight to the point, whether she is describing tampons or horny men. She ironises her own idealism, which she realises is a privilege compared to the necessity which can dictate other people’s lives.


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