“The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town.” So begins The Swimmers (2022), Julie Otsuka’s latest work of fiction. This is the third novel of the Japanese-born American writer, after When the Emperor was Divine (2002) and The Buddha in the Attic (2011), for which she received the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 2012. This time Otsuka recounts the course of her mother’s progressive memory loss, retrieving the previously published short story, Diem perdidi.
The theme of illness involving progressive memory loss has also been addressed by other authors, among whom are two Nobel Laureates: Alice Munro, winner in 2013, and Annie Ernaux in 2022. Munro, the Canadian author, devoted the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” to the consequences of memory loss. In the span of about fifty pages, she tells the story of a wife and husband, Fiona and Grant, who are momentarily separated when she is hospitalized for a period and meet again after a month. Munro turns the illness into an extraordinary storytelling opportunity, full of half-tones, nuances, open-ended questions, ambiguities and reticence as, page after page, the story of the couple’s relationship emerges, revealing the countless layers of a life spent together. How true is it? How much reflects their awareness? How much of their life together is chosen, wanted or suffered?