Literary fiction meets a lucid appreciation of planetary crises in “Memory of Water”

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As climate change communicators, we are often asked about the possible influence of stories. How, or not at all, climate fiction or cli-fi helps create awareness, changes beliefs and perceptions or even inspires positive action. In one of the scenes of Water Memory, teenage protagonist Noria Kaitio, in a future water-scarce Scandinavian Union, seems to echo these thoughts about the connections between creative imagination and action as she reflects on people of the past.

“I imagine one of them standing by the river that is now a dry scar in our landscape, a woman who is neither young nor old, or maybe a man, whatever. Her hair is light brown and she looks at the flowing water, muddy maybe, maybe clear, and something that hasn’t been yet bleeds into her thoughts.

I would like to think that she turns around and goes home and does one thing differently that day because of what she imagined…”

But Noria isn’t too sure if these visions bleeding through her mind, perhaps of an imaginary, dark and frightening future, would really inspire the stranger on this shore of the past to act differently. Yet at the end of this finely woven tale that grows upon us like an incessant whisper, this tea master’s maiden would put her faith in the need for storytelling because “there will be others who will carry the story. Maybe a small part of the world will be whole after them.

water memory is set in a post-oil climatic dystopia, mostly around a small village in the Scandinavian Union which, along with large parts of Asia, has been colonized by New Qian. Noria lives with her father and her scientist mother at the edge of the village. Water scarcity is rampant in the region and many world technologies of the past have been lost. In this world of water quotas, “water crimes” and ruthless blue-uniformed water wardens, the introspective teenager and her industrious friend Sanja discover a carefully hidden secret that could change lives. stories from the past as much as it could change the future.

Told in Noria’s first-person narrative, this coming-of-age story is about choices in the face of total hardship, questions of environmental ethics, and the role of an ancient tradition of tea masters as a cornerstone. sense and compass to navigate the world. darkness of the world.

“The distance between dreams and words is long, and so is the path from words to deeds,” says Noria, bringing us back to the recurring theme of the importance of imagination in shaping the world – the world will always be an image. of what we dream of. The power of the author’s own imagination, lively but measured, rendered in melancholy poetic prose in a myriad of monochrome shades, makes for a very different climatic novel, in a genre whose early years, as Axel Goodbody points out, , are filled with crime novels.

Making sense of climate change

Cli-fi researcher Gregers Andersen, in justifying the need for climate change fiction, says these stories will not only allow us to imagine a world changed by climate, it’s what such a “world could to resemble”, but also to “reconcile”. with ‘what living in such a changed future’ will mean. Elsewhere, Sophia David explains how cli-fi can help engage readers and make climate change ‘meaningful’ to non-scientists.

Itäranta’s novel, with its keen attention to setting and a finely honed aesthetic sense, accomplishes these tasks brilliantly, transporting us to that possible future of dire water shortages, wars, and a life of untold hardship that seems more and more likely nowadays. Perhaps the very real droughts and water shortages induced by today’s climate and the endless conflicts tearing nations apart have prepared us for the messages of this book.

As the altered future is revealed to the reader with images of rare beauty, the author also dedicates pages to looking back at the widespread impact of climate change in the “age of the past world” when things began. to collapse.

“On the old map, the North and South poles were shown in white. I knew it represented the ice that had sometimes been called eternal ice, until it became clear that it wasn’t eternal after all. Towards the end of the past world era, the globe had warmed and the seas had risen faster than anyone could have imagined…”

Not far from the village where Noria lives is the dead forest. By evoking the past and present of this vanished desert and throughout history, the author through carefully chosen words and the bliss of his style plants poignant images in our minds.

“The Dead Forest was once called Mosswood, a name reminiscent of deep green leaves moving in the wind and greenery so lush and moist you could feel it on your skin. Even longer ago, when words for such greenness were not needed yet, because it was obvious in these lands, the forest had no name at all… now it is bare trunks and twisted branches to the sky dry, colorless sand like a cobweb woven across the landscape, or the empty husks of insects captured in. Life no longer circulated within them, their veins were weakened and broken, their skins congealed in letters of a language forgotten, almost incomprehensible marks of what had been.

A story of contrasts

It won’t be an overstatement to say that this novel easily convinces us of the dangers tomorrow might bring, with its use of evocative prose and carefully calibrated storytelling in a way that scholarly papers or media bytes on the crisis climate would not. In the use of the foreground and what Shklovsky calls ostrania or defamiliarization, Itäranta injects new meaning into the eerie settings of this novel, infusing this cli-fi work with a literality still hard to find in this “genre.” It is the magic of his prose that is the beating heart of this book, alongside the setting and also a deft characterization that adds persuasion to this story.

water memory is also a matter of contrasts. There is an enduring quality, a sort of unchanging essence in the age-old traditions of a long line of tea masters who had lived in the same house as Noria and there is also the fleetingness of the world around them unraveling. slowly – things go from bad to worse, shortages multiply, wars rage endlessly, military water guards become more and more ruthless towards those who illegally tap water pipes.

Against this backdrop of growing darkness, Noria’s mother, who is a scientist, plans to travel to a distant city called Xinjing to continue her research. Meanwhile, her father introduces her to a generations-old secret hidden in a cave in Alvinvaara Falls: a secret spring watched over by tea masters over the centuries.

“You’re seventeen, you’re of age now, and therefore old enough to understand what I’m about to tell you,” my father said. This place has not been found. The spring dried up a long time ago. Then stories tell, and so believe even those who know other stories…”

This secret, as she soon realizes, will bring trouble to her family as the local Qianese administrator, Commander Taro, suspects that they have access to a hidden water source and to investigate this he digs up their garden. and destroys the tea house. Noria is well aware of the weight of the secret entrusted to her, when she promises her father not to divulge it.

“I’ll remember that,” I told him, but didn’t realize until later what kind of promise I had made. Silence is neither empty nor immaterial, and there is no need to chain tamed things. He often keeps powers strong enough to break everything.

There is a bit of philosophy woven into the story, into the thoughts and reflections of the young woman, which complements the quiet brilliance of Itäranta’s prose. It was the author’s first novel and already at that time critics had compared her writing to that of Ursula K Le Guin. We also find good reason to look for parallels between the spare but lyrical quality of his writing and the language employed by Cormac McCarthy in The road. In these two books, the style, voice and literalism, and in McCarthy’s case even the vocabulary, go beyond the needs of the narrative, entering into a fascinating symbiosis with the story to evoke the denudations of a planet. ravaged.

The world where Noria’s story takes place is meticulously crafted, right down to the use of blazefly lanterns to light up homes, sound messages, slow-moving solar-powered helicopters and helipads, plastic water bottles to transport water, heavily guarded desalination plants for urban water. supply, ubiquitous seagrass bags, and a sprawling plastic tomb that hides another secret that drives the plot. While digging through the plastic tomb for technologies from the past world, Noria and her friend Sanja stumble upon a recording from the twilight century, when the world was running out of oil. This recording and another chance discovery seem to indicate that fresh water may be available in the forbidden region of the Lost Lands, but sinister powers are withholding this secret.

After the death of Noria’s father, these discoveries place her in a dilemma. She can’t decide whether to go in search of the hidden water reserves or as a new tea mistress, continue to keep the source a secret, or even join her mother in distant Xinjing to pursue a scientific vocation. What will happen at the end? It’s for the tale to tell, but as the Unionists launch a revolt against the occupying forces in New Qian and water thefts begin to be punished with executions, Noria will have to face an ethical question. more important, if you have to share the water with your community, putting it at risk. life in the process.

With Noria Kaitio, Itäranta created a character, who is a source of humanity in the midst of a water-hungry world. In his essay on climate novels, Axel Goodbody writes of this book’s “sensual evocation of the sight, sounds, smell and taste of water” as well as its “use of the element as multi-dimensional symbol, linking climate change with an exploration of personality development and issues of gender and sexuality, and beyond with a reflection on the meaning of life and the ability of art and writing to provide a permanence that human life does not allow. water memory is definitely part of a line of still sparsely populated cli-fi works where the best of literary fiction meets a lucid appreciation of the planetary crises that engulf us all.

In my activist avatar, I once published a book on water, where we focused on citizens’ rights to water. After reading Itäranta’s novel and after years of monitoring the climate crisis, we have come to realize that the question is not only that of rights but also that of duties. The duty to share, the duty to recognize the gifts of nature, the duty not to hoard and the imperative as stewards of the planet to protect scarce resources.

Like the tea master of this book, we must say with one voice: “Not everything in the world belongs to the people… We are the keepers of the water, but above all we are its servants.”

Water Memory, emmi Itaranta, Harper Voyager.

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