Chi è ciascuno di noi se non una combinatoria d’esperienze, d’informazioni, di letture, d’immaginazioni? Ogni vita è un’enciclopedia, una biblioteca, un’inventario d’oggetti, un campionario di stili, dove tutto può essere continuamente rimescolato e riordinato in tutti i modi possibili. [Is there anyone amongst us who isn’t a combination of experiences, of information, what we’ve read, what we’ve imagined? Every life is an encyclopaedia, a library, a collection of objects, a sampling of styles, where everything can be continually reshuffled and rearranged in as many ways as possible.]
Italo Calvino, from a lecture at Harvard, 1985
Out of this rather trite observation, the final phrase stands out. “The past is another country”: we explore it often, looking for that elusive eldorado, meaning. We want our lives to have meant something, so we go back, “in a dark wood wandering” again and again, in the hope that in some clearing of the forest the answer will be standing there, as in all those tales of the lost huntsmen.
But there is a sting: in the version of the old story told in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, the mysterious figure in the clearing has a gift which none of the huntsmen must lay hands on. Inevitably, eventually, a wicked knight does so, and is killed. But the spirit and its treasure never again appear in the forest. Are our memories so at risk if we revisit them?
Listening to my mother, now in the late evening of her ninety-year life, I marvel how individual memories, good and not so good, rise to the surface of her mind in seemingly random order. But of course it is not random. It is reviewing the parade: a purposeful sifting through the old treasures now in the trunk in the loft; the letters tied with a ribbon and a bow; the photographs; newspaper clippings crumbling at the edges; the sudden enunciation of a name.
The pageant that was our life passes in all its individual and jolting glory. Hungry for disclosure, re-enactment, we direct the shuffling and the rearrangement of the parade to our satisfaction – yes, yes, that is what really happened! – until perhaps a figure steps from the procession and comes towards you, and you are transfixed: “Oh my God, it’s you”. Those whom we have met over the years – some we have loved – turn out to be the treasure we were always looking for and no amount of reshuffling, maestro Calvino, can either get past them or summon them at will.