My dad once told me, when I was between the age of ten and thirteen, the story of Caribbean rebels ( in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands) who all jumped off a cliff together and smashed on the rocks below. They’d rather, he said, give up their lives than be a slave. There were so many of them that to this day the rocks remain red with their blood. At the time I wasn’t sure how I felt about the story: it didn’t have a time period nor a specific place. But the story set my mind spiraling with imagination and contemplation, and even though I forget about it for years on end, absorbed in my daily life, it reappears momentarily with the same vivacity.
In his first story, “Dr Henry Selwyn,” Sebald keeps a consistent motif of unattainable forgotten memories that return upon their own whim. When the narrator speaks of a photo that Dr Selwyn was unwilling to explain, he proclaims, “That view of the Lasithi plateau […] made a deep impression on me at the time, yet it later vanished from my mind almost completely” (17). When the narrator recalls how the memory finally did return to him, vividly explaining the experience of the place, he points out an error in his memory, “which in reality I have still not seen to this day [speaking of Lasithi]” (18). This triggered the connection to my memory because I have never actually seen the place which my dad spoke of, nor experienced the event (obviously), but its memory always returns with clarity.
Using the generic photo of a beach in St. John mirrors the way Sebald uses photos. It adds a level of irony to my memory, because when I took this photo my mind was on one thing: the beach and its beauty. Now it serves as my only personal photo of St. John that I can provide for this story. The photos that Sebald uses may serve the same purpose, to stand in as the only evidence possible, but they also reinforce the story’s obscurity. This picture shows that I’ve been to one of the bays in St. Johns but it also reminds me that I have no feasible evidence of the story that had an impact on my mind. Sebald’s photos always detach me from the story because it’s not clear if they are real or relevant, but just the same they provide visual stimulation to further contemplate the story.