“A Place in Memory” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin
English Publication History: The Uncertainty Principle (Macmillan, 1978)
Original: Russian (Место в памяти), 1972
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978
Synopsis: The Memorial Center exists in order to record the memory and stories of everyone, especially the elderly: “A million destinies, a million unrepeatable acts, thoughts, and feelings, all the personal things that used to disappear with death were now gathered and preserved, lived forever, and this wealth was priceless” (83). The director of the Center welcomes one such old man who was eager to share his story, only the computer refused to store any of it, which means that his story was deemed 1) fabricated or 2) unoriginal. The director feigns surprise and promises to get to the bottom on the issue, to which the man leaves with imparting, “I was a contemporary of Gagarin’s!” (86).
Analysis: Authentic narratives are often used by journalists to capture an intriguing human interest piece for their readers. I was once the subject of such a narrative: I’m from a small town in Illinois, spent two years in the city for university before studying abroad for five month in Thailand (that was 16 years ago and I’m still there), something in which a staff reporter of the local paper took an interest. He interviewed me and printed the story on pages 1 and 12 of the the paper. At the time, I thought it was interesting, something to which the local may not have been exposed; but in retrospect, it’s actually the kind of fodder you read from everyone who’s visited Thailand.
As individuals, subjectively, the stories are important and unique, but from the objective perspective, the story’s pattern is probably copied hundreds if not thousands of times over.
Review: Most of Bilenkin’s story pack somewhat of a punch at the end; he’s quite good at it, which is highlighted well in the collection, but the punch fails to land in “A Place in Memory”. It may, however, conjure up thoughts of your talkative late-grandfather’s WWII stories and the accumulated hours of monologic tedium, a state which, thus, may make you feel slightly nostalgic.