What’s in a Memory?
I remember, quite clearly, once being woken up in the middle of the night by a rather menacing group of policemen. I was in a small town in Turkey, and along with two friends, Bulut and Ali, I was sleeping at Aslan’s house. We had spent hours listening to music and debating the rights and wrongs of recent political turbulence, and by eleven in the evening, it was too late to leave: in those days, there was a curfew, and soldiers marched through the dark streets arresting stragglers.
It’s a frightening experience, being confronted by the police in a country with a terrible human rights record; where you can be arrested for criticizing either the government or religion, for being a communist or a Kurd, or a journalist, a filmmaker, a writer, or even a teacher protesting against the lack of books. Luckily, however, this wasn’t a particularly worrying situation for us; a man down on the coast had been caught selling antique coins to tourists — something quite illegal — and the police wanted archaeologists to estimate the worth of those coins.
Both Aslan and Bulut were archaeologists, and Ali was their assistant: all three would be driving down to the city of Mugla, several hours away. Since I just happened to be there, Bulut suggested I come along. It was grey, cold, and rainy when we arrived; Ali and I were parked in a restaurant for long hours, while Aslan and Bulut went away with the police. Later that day, while we were on our way back home, both men told Ali and me that they had lied to the police, had claimed the coins were fakes. Why? Because there were many of them around, and their loss had to be weighed against the terrible suffering the tourists and the seller would go through if found guilty.
That incident has remained in my memory for many long years, and I have now incorporated it into my new book, The Turkish Affair. But, just last week, while rummaging around in the chaos of a cupboard, I found one of my old notebooks from that time. And looking up the story of the coins, I was amazed to discover that Bulut’s grandmother had woken us in the night, not a group of policemen. As for the rest of the story…did Aslan and Bulut really deny the coins were authentic? I’ll never know: there’s no mention of that in my notes. My memory insists it did happen that way, but who knows?
You see what I’m getting at? Memory is the culprit. Certainly, we’ve all had the experience of meeting up with someone we haven’t seen in years, and discovering that a shared experience has been remembered in quite a different way: like a photo, a memory’s bright colours have faded, or changed with time.
We like to think we remember events accurately, that they stay the same no matter how many times we go over them, but the sad fact is, that’s impossible. Each time we recall an incident, or talk about it, we alter it in some slight, imperceptible, way, adding a detail, a scent, a sound, an atmosphere, or an intensity that never existed. By constantly updating in this unconscious way, the new version replaces the old one, and it ceases to be a memory and turns into an anecdote.
Can we recover the original story? No, we can’t. Sometimes returning to a place triggers a certain amount of recall, but to reconstruct a memory, we depend on the information stored in our brain, on the coordinated activity between the hippocampus and the frontal cortex.
The hippocampus is the brain’s director, and it tells the cortex which particular neurons it should activate. Frequently activated neurons become part of permanent memory in the cortex; other rarely activated neurons are lost. That means that some — or all — of the real information we’re looking for has vanished, along with the telephone numbers of long-lost lovers, old passwords, the first and last names of people who once meant something, faces, birthdays, and once-important, deeply intense conversations.
As writers, we should embrace a certain amount of memory loss: Perhaps if I remembered that incident with the coins as it really happened it wouldn’t be so extraordinary. I’ll never know. But, by putting the story into my new romantic suspense The Turkish Affair, it becomes a pivotal moment.
Why add such a tale to a romance, of all things? Well, why not? I love being a romance writer, even though I also write history books, mysteries, and memoirs. Romance is the feel-good, flip side to all the other (sometimes grim) writing, but that doesn’t make it less worthy. I work just as hard on creating vivid images, perfecting the language, and developing my characters in such books. After all, romance is just another vehicle for a good story well told. And if faulty memory comes into it, well…so be it.
Priceless artifacts are disappearing from the ancient Hittite site of Karakuyu in Turkey, and the site director has vanished. Called in to solve the mystery, archaeologist Renaud Townsend is hindered by both his inability to speak the language and the knowledge that the local police are corrupt. His attraction to translator Anne Pierson is immediate, although he is troubled by her refusal to talk about the past and her fear of public scandal. But when murder enters the picture, both Anne and Renaud realize that the risk of falling in love is not the only danger.
The Turkish Affair, by J. Arlene Culiner, published by The Wild Rose Press
Release date: January 15, 2020
Glittering descriptions, magical settings, and enviable characters bring the solemn grounds of Turkey to life as we are planted firmly in an archeological dig in Karakuyu. Culiner’s mastery of the English language and sentence combinations form an enchanting read. The Turkish Affair is a must-read for all lovers of romance and adventure.
Lisa McCombs for Readers’ Favorite