It’s a simple and true statement, but after reading Ronit Matalon’s The One Facing Us, one may be inclined to question its truthfulness. In Matalon’s novel, we are forced to question the reality that is so often and steadfastly tied to photography. Matalon writes in the language of a memoir, creating a unique and multi-layered tension between truth and fiction.
In the first chapter of The One Facing Us, the author describes a photo of a man with his back turned. The language, “That’s my uncle, not exactly in the center but a bit to the right…”(p.3) creates a casual tone, one that implies that the reader is sitting right next to Matalon, observing the photo as the story of her history unfolds. This could not be further from the case. From the beginning of her novel, Matalon instead weaves an intricate fiction tied to sometimes straightforward and other times deceiving (and other times missing) photographs. The author’s style is self-referential– she uses the writing and the story, both fragmented and disorienting, to draw attention to the fragmented and disorienting nature of distant memory, especially in terms of displacement. The illusion of the text as memoir, as truth or reality or memory, is a mirage. In fact, Matalon uses her description of first photo as a metaphor for the nature of her work and for memory:
“The covered plaza, paved with large cement slabs, is flooded. Light breaks on the stagnant, fetid water that spills from the plastic tubs, shimmering on the hard cement. The crisp, bright reflection lends everything, even the human activity, the air of a mirage.”(4)
To Matalon, memory is the haze that reality leaves behind. For many different reasons, time being one of the biggest, memory can be manipulated further and further away from reality. Photographs are supposed to be reassurances of our memories. We wonder, “did that actually happen?” and can refer to our many photographs for proof, or evidence of “that-has been” as Barthes would like to say. But what happens when the only memory we have left is of that singular moment the photograph can provide us? Is that enough to satisfy our need to experience a full, rich memory?
This photograph is of my father, as I said before. I took it in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a place that happens to have a hazy, mirage-like quality. Angkor Wat is so old, so unique, that my memory of the experience is very surreal. I can barely believe that I was there taking that picture. Although I took this picture last year, my memories of what we actually did or said are fading quickly. I am certain that one day, the only memory I will be able to hold on to is of aiming and shooting my camera towards my father as he shot right back at me. There will be brief moments and interactions that I will remember, for no apparent rhyme or reason. And these moments seem to have a semblance of the small moments of dialogue portrayed in The One Facing Us, so minute that they are not even worth describing in this passage. They are irrelevant to any other part of my life, just tiny fragments of a past reality, or what I believe to be a past reality.
Because of my perception of this photograph, I am very moved by Matalon’s novel. The One Facing Us is confusing to the point of frustration at times, but this frustration is a feeling that also arises every time I attempt to recall a distant memory or moment. No matter how clear the moment was to me at the time or how much I want to experience it again, nothing– not even a photograph– can completely bring it back.