BEF 2011/20 – Elza Kuga’s Old-Age Dementia [Latvia]


Symptoms vary amongst brain diseases, but memory seems to be an almost universal casualty.  It is an indispensable element of one’s identity, and any impairment of its function can only mean an erosion to the self.  But memory is a mysterious thing, and not something that is always subject to our will, in the way that fine motor skills are.  Proust, though not alone, made the distinction between “voluntary memory” – that which one recalls at will, and “involuntary memory” – a memory that comes upon one suddenly, often without stimulation, seemingly all the more clear for its sudden appearance.  Memory seems to follow no rules but its own; a capricious, untamed beast who only grows more recalcitrant as it ages and fails, along with its frail and deluded “master”.

Latvian writer Nora Ikstena’s story “Elza Kuga’s Old-Age Dementia” is about just such a distinction, about our failing minds, the abandoned lighthouse of one’s memory that nevertheless sends the occasional pulse of light sweeping over one.  The bulk of the piece comes from the titular character’s thoughts and memories and observations as she is wheeled (wheelchair-bound is our flaneur) around the streets of Greenwich Village, New York.  Elza’s day is one of routine: she is pushed along the same streets, stops to pick up lunch at the same Italian restaurant, eats it in the same public garden, and then begins her daily Sanskrit lesson.  The last is an oddity, yes, but is born, perhaps, of Elza’s awareness of her own failing memory, and a (late) attempt to buttress its crumbling foundation.

[Elza] brings the blossom to her nose and draws in its fragrance.  In this brief moment, through her time-eroded memory, the scent draws out some sort of echo, some distant reverberation that she almost certainly recognizes.  She wants to reach it but cannot.

That blossom, and more generally its yellow colour, reminds Elza of her mother’s grave:

Father wants his little girl to forever love the woman who bore her and whom she never met.  The girl gazes at the white marble dove, head bent, on one side of the monument.  She pats the motionless bird.  It seems so alive.  It might flap its folded wings and fly away at any moment.  But the stone dove remains where it is.  It gazes down at the gravesite, always; a bunch of yellow flowers laid on the earth.

Like the child more interested in the tangible stone dove than the significance of the grave, Elza clutches at physical things – the sun, the earth, her arthritic hands, her own changing body with its many surface impressions and blemishes like the “imprints on a fossil turned to stone” – as if in her eroding mind she has recognized the need to economize and directs her resources toward her immediate surroundings.  Still, she can’t help wondering what will “flash past her eyes in her last moments”.

Elza senses that in that brief instant she will suddenly remember everything.  The faded contours will all be sharpened, her phantoms filling out with bright, natural colors.  Their voices will sound clearly.

Elza will be handed a mug of hot chocolate…A bunch of yellow flowers will be bought for her in the quiet, spring-touched city.  Elza will talk and think in one and the same language.  Elza will make love twice…And then Elza will be alone.  Elza will be Elza will be Elza.

With death her memory will be restored and the fog of dementia lifted from her brain, and she will once again be the person she was before disease clouded her identity.

Ikstena’s writing is lively and vivid and rich with metaphor (not all successful) and simile.  It is perhaps impossible to say whether or not she has accurately portrayed the mind of a woman suffering from dementia, but through the free-wheeling association and peripatetic meandering of Elza’s thoughts, the appearance, at least, has certainly been achieved.  Her achievement in this regard, is not without its pitfalls, though.  In recording the scattered thoughts of her protagonist, Ikstena is trying to shine light on a subject – the aging mind and memory – through an increasingly concave lens: the light can only diverge and will scarcely illumine, but never focus.  And so it doesn’t: Elza’s stream of thought is not easy to follow, and flows as if dammed.

But is this a weakness or, given Elza’s addled nature, a strength?  A greater writer would better be able to find the balance between a representative disorientation and a clarity of the text, but Ikstena comes down – though not by much – on the foggy side of the divide.

‘Elza Kuga’s Old-Age Dementia’ is translated from Latvian by Margita Gailitis and Vija Kostoff

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.


2 Responses to “BEF 2011/20 – Elza Kuga’s Old-Age Dementia [Latvia]”

  1. Harry Elliot Says:

    Is “free-associating” the stuff of fiction? Make love twice? Acch.

  2. David J Single Says:

    Sure, I think it can be. In the right hands anything can be fiction. Here, though, Ikstena fails. It is incoherent. She makes an attempt at threading through a yellow flower motif, but it is too little to string it all together.

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