Moth; or, how I came to be with you again, by Thomas Heise, is a poetic narrative of three- to six-page chapters, by a fictional narrator writing his memoir who “may” be under doctor’s care for an illness in which he is unable to distinguish between “what was real and what was not”—a condition the doctors were so concerned about that perhaps “they might be diagnosing themselves.” These prefatory remarks likewise state that the manuscript had been lost and found and perhaps altered by himself or another and, once translated from the German into English, the original was burned. The book begins with an unreliable narrator and text.
This narrator has lived in many cities—Oslo, Copenhagen, New York, Prague, Berlin—and sent himself a postcard from Buenos Aires, a place he had never been. He relays to us his thoughts, which are of seemingly real facts: “I remember blurry light, rain on an awning, and then being lifted and placed in a red wagon . . . I remember a small, A-frame house, and watching the hawthorn wasting in an emollient sea wind . . . I remember a white door . . .” Then:
I remember wondering if other memories remained in the twilight regions of my mind where my failed loves were soil, and if soon someone would enlighten me to things I had done and then, years later, I would remember them as real . . .
He does not know for certain if his memories are remembered accurately or even if they are his or if he has made them up out of things people have told him. He lived through the second world war, a war not named in the book, with his mother and father who became absent, how we are never told. He was orphaned and is still alive today.
Heise uses the conditional tense, which creates a mood of suspended, counterfactual reality as the implacable placidity of the sentences lyrically move, the words a music score of melancholia. The “self” of the narrator is contained in an enmeshed, associated, fingering net of dreams, memories, loss, longing, anomie, imagination, fantasy—and feels recognizable as interior life. The undercurrent of irretrievable loss is accomplished by stoically repeated fragments about the mother, father, the red wagon, the A-frame house, the orphanage, his childhood—remembered, imagined or invented, he doesn’t know. The fictional narrator’s sense of self feels like a twentieth century everyman caught in a reality not taking him into account, nor can he find a mooring in the change experienced. Reality is not reliable with sequences of predictable familiarity. This effect is accomplished with sentences that segue from fact to a conditional unknown:
I would have noted that the point where the black seam of her dress expanded at her hip . . . and her pause on the stairs that coiled like a shell about to release her was due to the door revolving, though no one was in it. It rotated slowly, delivering from the outside voices of children, those who were about to depart, perhaps even her future self who, though gone, would continue to live on within her.
He questions what happens in his own mind as it applies to what he sees and experiences: “The mere recrudescence of a sign is no reason to ascribe it meaning and the recurrence of patterns of behaviour is, I feel, thoroughly arbitrary in most instances.”
And—yet, driven from a survival place at the very center of having personhood at all, the sense of personhood his own personal memory of who he is (or anyone is), the narrator keeps returning to his origins, remembering over and over, “a” past history of his parents—he knows must have been there because he is here. How I came to be with you again is the act of remembering that contains all his world and especially the minute, hazy, grasped-for fragments of his early childhood—he doesn’t quite know if they are real or not, he was so young when everything was lost:
The woman who would become my mother found me riding in a red wagon . . . pulled through the streets. . . . When she lifted me into the sky for the first time, it was my primal scene, one I would spend my life trying to repeat for that same level of spontaneous wonder.
In Heise’s hands, the narrator’s personhood is adrift on an indefinable sense of time, time as a metaphor-force filled with open-ended self-questioning . . . and yet “time,” whatever “it” is, holds memory together, the center of an individual’s personhood. Memory, which the narrator recognizes as unreliable, is what he holds onto as who he is, even as he struggles with alienation and that his personhood is a vacillating unknowable. New terms for consciousness, language and experience are used as commonplace: simulacrum, iterations, fractals, recursive loops, copies, repetitions, signs, traces—fictitious, unreliable narrator—lacy, statistical abstractions that disembody reality. The narrator says: “I have begun to suspect I am the final iteration of a degraded sign whose meaning will extinguish with me.” He wants to know his origins, his mother and father, his childhood, and to be “laid claim to, knowing that one’s existence was a matter of dire consequence for another.” He longs for what he imagines the “real” is. He wants to have a place.