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A walk through the memory palace

The cover of Memory Manifesto.
The cover of Memory Manifesto. Photo supplied

A walk through the memory palace

Christopher G Moore’s Memory Manifesto: A Walking Meditation through Cambodia is no easy linear stroll through remembrances past, despite what its title may suggest. The book is a meditation in the truest sense – as a written exploration of memory, both personal and collective, and its relationship for the author to Cambodia.

From the outset, Moore is explicit about his limitations. “I’m no expert on the culture, language, attitudes, or ethnic histories of the people of Cambodia,” he writes, adding that he is only offering his own observations from a brief window of time after the “national trauma” of the killing fields.

Having witnessed key moments in the country’s history but never having stayed long enough to immerse himself in the culture, Moore has an unusual relationship with Cambodia.

He first arrived as a journalist in 1993 during the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia years. Since, he has been in and out periodically – to cover demining efforts, the opening of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and as editor of the 2012 short story compilation Phnom Penh Noir.

His memories of the country, as he explores in depth in his book, are both intense and ever unreliable. An image of a back alley off Street 136 is seared into his mind, while other seemingly more important details of the country have been filtered out over time. In this way, the topic of Cambodia is an opportunity to explore the failures of remembering, and a way to discuss how we form memories collectively.

“How do societies tell the stories they tell, and who gets to tell them?” he asks at the beginning.

In a theme discussed throughout, in Cambodia the control of memory has been and still is harnessed to devastating effect. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe it out, starting from “Year Zero” with no attachments to the past. The subsequent tribunal to prosecute those crimes has attempted to unearth the truth of what happened during those years but it too is subject to control by political forces.

“In terms of memory, Cambodia has one of these epic lessons of how we remember what we remember, [and the] political violence to disrupt it,” Moore told Post Weekend. “There’s the Khmer Rouge war against memory and the urban class and my memory as a member of that urban class witnessing what has resulted from that period in time. It has a paradoxical relationship.”

For readers looking for a traditional memoir, or a thorough study of Cambodia, Memory Manifesto is likely to disappoint. At points, chapters pass without mention of the country, and when the setting does shift to the Kingdom, the lens is often more on Moore’s interrogation of his memory – and why he remembers what he does – than on what happened itself.

But there are certain vignettes with more historical specificity, such as Moore’s discussions with Phorn Bopha, then a Cambodia Daily journalist, after she witnessed the killing of environmental activist Chut Wutty. The main focus, however, is on the mind, not the country, and often on “the science of memory”.

“We’re just starting to explore that scientifically. How that system of interconnected neurons actually constructs the memory, and constructs it so visibly that you can see it in your mind’s eye,” Moore said. “There are things you can’t trust about your memory and that’s hard to come to terms with.”

Memory Manifesto: A Walking Meditation through Cambodia is available in print and on Kindle through Amazon.

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