by ZJ Czupor
Forgetting is an Integral Part of Remembering
Perhaps you know this story: an unconscious man is picked up out of the Mediterranean Sea by Italian fishermen. He has two gunshot wounds in his back. A frame of microfilm has been implanted in his hip. His face has been altered by plastic surgery. He suffers from retrograde amnesia, meaning he has memory loss for past information, events, even his name. After he recovers his health, he races off to elude assassins while attempting to regain his memory and his identity.
That, of course, is the plot line for The Bourne Identity, (Ricard Marek, publisher), the 1980 spy thriller by Robert Ludlum
Jason Bourne, the protagonist, doubts his own responses to people who are bent on killing him. Because of his amnesia he fears that he might, in fact, be the master criminal who he thinks he is pursuing.
In 1971, Ludlum was 44. His first novel had been rejected 10 times and finally published as The Scarlatti Inheritance, (World Publishing, 1971), but after it was published, he could not remember twelve hours of his life. That’s what gave him the idea for The Bourne Identity.
Ludlum wrote three Bourne novels: The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990). After Ludlum died in 2001, Eric Van Lustbader authored ten more in the series and the last two Bourne novel are authored by Brian Freeman.
As a plot device, amnesia shows up in all forms of fiction, film, stage plays, daytime soap operas, and cartoons and has been around since the 8th century, where amnesia plays a role in Homer’s The Odyssey (8th century, BCE, first published in English, 1614); Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1597);and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859).
Some literary critics consider the use of amnesia as cliché, trope, or cheap plot device, for it allows the author to create empathy for the main character and delays the narrative reveal creating conflict and suspense, which on the other hand for mystery and thriller writers is a good thing.
In The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss, edited by Jonathan Lethem (Vintage, 2000), Lethem says “Real, diagnosable amnesia is mostly a rumor in the world. It’s a rare condition, and usually a brief one. In books and movies, though, versions of amnesia lurk everywhere, from episodes of Mission Impossible to metafictional and absurdist masterpieces, with dozens of stops in between.”
He’s right. There are well over 300 titles where the plot revolves around amnesia from mysteries and thrillers to romance, science fiction, and young adult.
In amnesia stories, characters hit their heads, fall unconscious, wake up with no memory of how or why they shot that gun, or why that bloody naked body is lying next to them or find themselves in situations where they can’t remember their name, or the identities of their loved ones.
Like Jason Bourne’s amnesia problem, characters lose their memories due to a previous traumatic event but can form new memories and function without any problem. Otherwise, they move through novels as healthy, alert, walking, and talking characters.
The irony of mystery novels about amnesia is that they are often about remembering. Memories can be forgotten, remembered, changed, renewed, or adapted to whatever we need.
Here are three examples of mystery novels in which amnesia drives the plot:
The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian. Cassandra Bowden, a flight attendant and binge drinker, wakes up in Dubai during a layover to discover the man she went to bed with is lying dead next to her in a pool of blood. Because of an alcoholic blackout she can’t remember anything about the night before.
In the Woods by Tana French. In the summer of 1984, three children play in the woods near Dublin but only Rob Ryan returns. He’s found hugging a tree in terror with blood on his shoes. He has no memory of what happened. Twenty years later, he’s a detective with the Dublin Murder Squad and investigates the murder of a young girl in the same woods.
The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry. First in a series of murder mysteries set in Victorian England featuring a brilliant but amnesic detective, William Monk. After an accident in his carriage, Monk wakes up with no memory. He’s ashamed to admit it and bluffs his way through a tricky murder investigation.
The series covers more than a dozen books and reaches a climax in Death of a Stranger (Ballantine, 2002) in which Monk breaks through his amnesia and finally discovers who he once was.
Amnesia makes characters vulnerable, while the character tries to figure out his or her situation. Amnesia also allows authors to write scenarios in current time that will be threatened by past revelations; or written in a such a way the plot unfolds with organized reveals which help the reader follow along. In short, amnesia generates curiosity and suspense for the reader.
Amnesia stories are also often stories about guilt, or the nature of our human existence versus questions about our identity.
Professor Cristina Alberini, an Italian neuroscientist and psychoanalyst, who studies long-term memory, said “Forgetting is an integral part of remembering.”
Now then, let’s take a short history jaunt to jog your memory about the link between literature and memory. Mnemosyne [Mne: mosy: ne] was the Greek goddess of memory. From her name, we get our English word “mnemonic,” meaning “remembrance” or “memory.” She was quite the fertile goddess as she slept with Zeus, the god of sky and thunder and king of all gods, for nine consecutive nights, thus conceiving the nine muses of Poetry, History, Music and lyric poetry, Love poetry, Tragedy, Hymns, Dance, Comedy, and Astronomy.
In ancient Greece, the nine Muses are considered the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. The basic meaning of the word “muse” is to “put in mind” or “have in mind.” According to Greek scholars “the Muses brought people to forgetfulness, that is, the forgetfulness of pain and the cessation of obligations” therefore opening our literary minds to inspiration, which comes to us from the Old French meaning “blow into, breathe upon, excite, or inflame.”
Ancient and modern authors often admit to invoking the Muses when writing. Maybe you too have invited the Muse to sing directly through you.
During the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), there was a cult of the Muses where scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, and others circulated their ideas through meetings. Their cult place was called a “museum” or a place for the public display of knowledge.
Other words we know and derive from the Muses are words like “amuse,” “music,” and “musing upon.”
I would tell you more, but I’ve forgotten where I was going with this.
And that’s your mystery minute.
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In his 30-year literary career, Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) sold more than 225 million copies of his twenty-seven novels in 32 languages. All three of his Bourne novels were adapted into major motion pictures between 2002-2016:
Chris Bohjalian is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-one books. His work has been translated into 35 languages. Three of his novels have been adapted in films. The Flight Attendant (Doubleday, 2018) was Bohjalian’s twentieth novel and last year became an eight-hour TV series for HBO Max.
In the Woods was Tana French’s debut novel (Viking Penguin, 2007). It won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel (2008) and numerous other awards and sold more than one million copies. French is an American-Irish writer.
Anne Perry is a best-selling English author of two acclaimed series set in Victorian England. Her short story, “Heroes” first appeared in the 1999 anthology Murder and Obsession edited by Otto Penzler. It won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Short Story. The Face of a Stranger (Fawcett, 1990) was the first of twenty-four novels in the William Monk series.
As an aside, Perry was born Juliet Marion Hulme but changed her name after serving a five-year prison sentence. In 1954, at the age of 15, she and her best friend were convicted of murdering her friend’s mother.