By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, December 8, 2008
By M.J. Rose
Mira. 453 pp. $24.95
Do you have memories from an earlier life? Do you remember marching with Napoleon? Bantering with Shakespeare? Making whoopee with Cleopatra? If so, you probably should rush out and buy M.J. Rose's "The Memorist," because Rose believes that your memories are more likely fact than fantasy. Indeed, her ambitious new novel strikes me as the "Gone With the Wind" -- or, at the very least, "The Da Vinci Code" -- of reincarnationist fiction.
Her complex story starts in the present but carries us deep into the past. Her heroine is a young woman named Meer Logan, who since childhood has been tormented by visions she cannot understand. Her father, a student of reincarnation, tells her these are past-life memories: "Déjà vu and coincidence are God tapping you on the shoulder, telling you to pay attention, showing you that you are walking in the footprint of your own reincarnation." But Meer stubbornly resists Dad's theories, insisting that she is only experiencing "false memories" based on something she saw or read or imagined as a child.
Then an elaborately carved box that Meer has imagined and sketched since childhood turns up in Vienna. It contains a letter from Ludwig van Beethoven concerning a "memory flute" that, according to legend, can produce music that will unlock past memories. The rest of the novel, based in and around Vienna, involves a search for this long-missing "memory tool." Meer and her father want it for its scientific value and the relief it can bring to troubled people. However, "The Memorist" is very much a thriller, and these truth-seekers are threatened by villains who seek the flute because it is potentially worth millions of dollars.
We have entered a world of "memory lurches," "past life memory trauma," "binaural beats," "circular time" and "harmonic resonance." As Meer visits Beethoven's home for the first time, she has a vision of an aristocratic woman named Margaux Neidermier who in 1814 worked with the great composer to protect the mysterious flute. The reader soon concludes that Meer was Margaux in a previous life. As Meer's visions of Vienna in 1814 become more painful and detailed, she reluctantly accepts that possibility. (Perhaps because Beethoven is rather grumpy, not to mention deaf, Rose also involves Margaux in a flirtation with Czar Alexander of Russia, who's in town for the Congress of Vienna.)
Eventually, Meer and others in the story find they share memories from an even more distant time, when the flute was created. They are all locked in a continuing drama that extends from antiquity to 1814 to the present.
Here Meer reflects on beliefs at the heart of the story:
"What she and [her friend] Sebastian were experiencing was what her father had told her about. What ancient sages, followers of Pythagoras and Jung, early Christians, pagans and Kabbalists had identified as being connected to what was known as same soul consciousness. People are part of one great cosmic awareness, her father had tried to explain in different ways over the years. And souls who'd bonded in several lives over time and grown together through the millennia were eventually able to communicate with each other without words through that awareness." Rose buttresses her case by quoting many notables who have embraced reincarnation, from Walt Whitman to Jack London to Leo Tolstoy.
Another plot, which eventually connects with Meer's story, concerns an Israeli journalist, David Yalom, whose wife, children and parents were killed by terrorists. A conference of international security experts is meeting in Vienna, and its delegates will attend a special performance of Beethoven's Third Symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic. To gain revenge on the people who failed to protect his family, Yalom enters ancient catacombs under the symphony hall to set off an explosion that will kill everyone at the concert, including Meer and her friends. Will this mad plot succeed? Rose concocts a fanciful ending that is a good deal more interesting than having 3,000 music lovers blown to smithereens.
It probably helps to believe in reincarnation to appreciate this novel, but it isn't essential. I don't believe in it, but I do believe in good writing, and Rose is an unusually skillful storyteller. Her polished prose and intricate plot will grip even the most skeptical reader. Whatever your views on reincarnation, "The Memorist," which is a sequel to last year's "The Reincarnationist," is first-rate fiction.