The Double Role, by Maria StepanovaSasha Dugdale

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From the novel In Memory of Memory, which will be published this month by New Directions. Translated from the Russian.

Let’s suppose for a moment that we are dealing with a love story. Let’s suppose it has a main character. This character has been thinking of writing a book about her family since the age of ten. And not just about her mother and father, but about her grandparents and great-grandparents, whom she hardly knew. She promises herself she will write this book, but keeps putting it off, because in order to write such a book she needs to grow up, and to know more.

The years pass and she doesn’t grow up. She knows hardly anything, and she’s even forgotten what she knew to begin with. Sometimes she startles herself with her unrelenting desire to say something, anything, about these barely seen people who withdrew to the shadowy side of history and settled there. She feels as if it is her duty to write about them. But why is it a duty? And to whom does she owe this duty, when it was their choice to stay in the shadows?

She thinks of herself as a product of the family, an imperfect output—but actually she is the one in charge. Her family is dependent on her charity as the storyteller. How she tells the story is how it will be. They are her hostages. She feels frightened: she doesn’t know what to take from the sack of stories and names, or whether she can trust herself, her desire to reveal some things and hide others.

She is deceiving herself, pretending her obsession is a duty to her family, her mother’s hopes, her grandmother’s letters. This is all about her and not about them. Others might call this an infatuation, but she can’t see herself through other peoples’ eyes.

The character does as she wishes, but she comforts herself by thinking that she has no other choice. If she’s asked how she came to the idea of writing a book, she immediately tells one of her family’s stories. If she’s asked what it’s all for, she tells another one.

She can’t seem to, or doesn’t want to, speak in the first person. Although when she refers to herself in the third person it horrifies her.

This character is playing a double role: trying to behave just as her people have always behaved, and trying to disappear into the shadows. But the author can’t disappear into the shadows—she can’t get away from the fact that this book is about her.

There’s an old joke about two Jews. One says to the other, “You say you’re going to Kovno, and that means you want me to think you’re going to Lemburg. But I happen to know that you really are going to Kovno. So—why are you trying to trick me?”

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