Breaking the Borders of Memories, Ghosts, and Shadows in The Lost Book of Adana Moreau

a photograph of a cluster of stars in space

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata is a story about stories, literature about literature, a universe about universes. Memories, ghosts, and shadows all guide the protagonists as they try to keep their stories and homes and loves with them. Early on, Maxwell’s father, The Last Pirate on Earth, tells a young Maxwell that stars are dead light, saying he could “use that dead light to make my way back home.” Dead light from the past guides us.

Stories have the power to be that light to us; with it, we have the power to be others’s stories, others’s guiding lights. Stories, the chasing of ghosts, are part of being a luftmensch, a Yiddish word Saul’s grandfather uses, meaning “someone who exists in a cloud of possibility.” That possibility is why at one point in the book, when in New Orleans, we hear about the great New Orleans singer John Boutté being at a bar after the Federal Floods followed Hurricane Katrina. The crowd “seemed to say, we can see you and you can see us, and that’s all we need right now.” Boutté asks the audience to scream with him. To make noise, to let everyone know they’re here. Scream to poke light through the curtain of darkness.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau follows Saul and his best friend, Javier, a reporter who covers disasters around the world, as they try to hand Maxwell Moreau a manuscript written by Maxwell’s mother—one of the last things Saul’s grandfather tried to do before his death. The manuscript is the physical object that gets The Lost Book of Adana Moreau started, but this book is about the effect that stories have on us, on our memories—about how we chase ghosts, the tellers of the tales, and those the tales are told about.

When looking up Maxwell Moreau, who is a physicist, Saul stumbles on his theories on alternate universes. Maxwell studied Adana’s fiction and saw the realities of it, crossing from one border to the next, making the fiction real, the fiction making the reality possible. Saul wonders if he can see realities of his grandfather in her fiction, too. Or realities from Maxwell’s history or his theories. Saul thinks about alternate universes as he explores realities different from the one he lives in now, in which both of his parents were killed before he developed his first memories. These alternate universes, however, were “carrying the echoes and silhouettes of still yet other deaths. His parents were ghosts of repetition, ghosts of the multiverse, trapped in a ghastly and suffocating image continually running on a loop.” Even in the alternate universes, Saul defaults to tragedy—he can’t escape the box he was put in before his memories formed. He can’t let his grandfather be put into the same tragic box.

Saul thinks of ghosts differently from most: they are not supernatural, but entities. He describes feeling a house with ghosts as, “memory-haunted, as if its floors and walls and altars and shelves full of figurines and letters of those who had left contained the entire memory.” He is chasing memory-ghosts, trying to find the grounding, the floors and walls; trying to find the altars and figurines and letters in the stories of his grandfather’s life; wondering if completing this mission will bring to life new stories, will bring more life to his grandfather in his own head. The stories echo child exiles who try to grasp onto any story from their homeland, any story from their mothers and fathers and family and friends that were left behind. Stories of exile that both Maxwell and Saul’s families understand all too well. Javier’s partner Marina talks about refugees’ “disseminated memories, tendrils of memories… like pages of a half-burned book. All of those memories are still living.” Disseminated memories come from exile, or from someone dying, or from having no home. Those memories border there and not there, real and not real.

Saul’s grandfather at one point says, “History books are not a connecting thread between the living and the dead, but they coax us into thinking they are because the dead are already us and we are already them.” Saul thinks about how history, his grandfather and his parents who are dead, and the alternate universes where they all are alive or dead together connect to this reality. There is no reality for Saul without thinking about those who are no longer with him here. The people have physically left him, but the memories, ghosts, and shadows can never be divorced from Saul’s reality.

Chasing ghosts is important. Saul learned this as a child from his grandfather. “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history.” This is why we get the story from Saul’s grandfather about a woman who fights to be recognized as Prussian, even if she is from a place, a home, that doesn’t exist to people in the outside world anymore. Her home, in whatever capacity, as a ghost, as a shadow, as a memory of a memory, will only last in that small space as long as she holds onto it. Saul wants to hold onto his grandfather as a home, too. He wants to keep his memories alive as long as he himself lives, knowing eventually memories of his grandfather “would dissipate like clouds over a cemetery.” He didn’t want to be there for all of that. He doesn’t want to be an orphan again. He wants to hold onto his grandfather as a home for as long as possible, like how the woman held onto her country that didn’t exist in the world anymore besides for her stories.

These memories, these ghosts, pull people. This is why the story of Victoria Ortiz visiting the site of the desaparecidos in the desert resonates with Saul. “Memory is a gravitational force,” Zapata writes. “It is constantly attracting us to the past, even if we shouldn’t stay there for too long. Those of us who have a memory are able to live in that fragile space between the past and the future. Those of us who have none are already dead.” Memory may be a trap, but there is no life outside of it. Without memory, you can’t cross borders between the past, the present, the future; between the living and the dead. Saul needs to keep hanging on in order to keep his grandfather alive, in order to keep himself alive. There is no dead light to guide him if memories of his grandfather darken. This is why the parts of the book that follow Maxwell’s youth are so key—we need to follow that light, that guidance, to understand the present.

Saul wonders, “how long do people know they’re dying before they begin to tell others? Or if they don’t tell anybody at all, like his grandfather, how long before others discover irrefutable proof that their loved one is dying?” This sentiment questions the border between death and the knowledge of death, between the living and ghosts and shadows, between present and past tense. Between the physical presence of someone and someone who has died and become a dead light. So when shortly afterwards Saul asks, “to whom then do the words and memories of a dying man even belong?” we see the importance of the questions on death. Possession of dying words only scratches the physical level of the loss, without getting into crossing the borders of past and present, of ghosts and memories and literature and alternate universes.

That is why this journey takes on so much importance for Saul. He wonders, “what happens to you as you travel farther and farther away from home… Where does one life begin and the other end? At the same time, he wasn’t unhappy as a traveler, wandering great distances in a matter of days.” Saul’s grandfather was his home, his guide. So when journeying down to New Orleans, he gets physically farther from his home, but he’s afraid that the memories are getting further away too—that if he doesn’t find Maxwell, he won’t keep any sense of home. That idea, of trying to cross borders to take home with you, whether it is new life experience with the people you love who have passed, or new homes in places you’ve never been before, but that you make while thinking of the home you had, is hard to grasp. You keep one hand reaching towards the future, and another cradling the past.

The fear of losing home, losing your culture, is brought up by Javier when he talks about one of the conversations he had with Saul’s grandfather. He says he was afraid of how much Incan history was lost, and Saul’s grandfather corrected him. As Javier recounts, he explained that “Incan history breathed, and I breathed too because of it. At some point, he said that maybe in a way were both right, that ‘history casts itself across our existence like a shadow of another world.’” If erasing the memory and history of a people is how you erase a people, the Incans have not been erased, for Incan DNA, Incan memories, are attached to so many things, just like Saul’s grandfather is attached to a book, but also to memories, to ghosts, to shadows, to Saul.

This is why alternate universes that have Saul’s grandfather’s and parents in them are so important. By playing out these alternate universes in his head, Saul is able to traverse this universe better. Saul says that “thinking of all those other Earths, of all my other branches of reality—the realities I’ve abandoned or inextricably erased… or the realities I’ve pursued aimlessly or half-heartedly, or even the vast majority of realities in which I have little control of anything at all.” Without the metaphors of memories and texts and fictions, it is hard to know which way to turn in this reality. Each reality is a memory, a fiction, a thought, a metaphor that helps Saul dictate what he wants from this reality. This reality is not in a vacuum to him. The memories and fictions and thoughts all guide him with the dead light in this one.

The reliance on other realities is why making noise in this one is so important. It’s why a character remembers screaming with John Boutté, any sound a proof of life, proof of living. It is why Saul takes the mission of passing off this manuscript, it is why Javier goes to tell the same apocalyptic story over and over again. Crossing from border to border, to crack through the darkness and let the dead light guide us.

All of these stories help the living connect with the dead, that help the living stay living. There is no life without the text, there is no life without the memories. There is no this reality without the other realities to guide us. In the acknowledgments, Zapata writes, “A novel is a family, a city, sometimes an entire world.” A lot of this novel is about New Orleans, my second city, my second home. I know some of the corners, some of the peoples and references. I know some of the authors namechecked in the pages, and how some of the fictions build off some of the truths. I don’t know everything about this book, but I know it lives, like the memories it builds off of, like the people I know, like the people I don’t know, like the fictions and realities that are blurred, and I know all the things I feel are real. Saul looks for the lost book of Adana Moreau, and we all feel something from that, reading this book, thinking of our own lost books, looking in the past while moving forward, to keep us and our peoples alive. Hoping to be led by the dead light, hoping to be dead light to guide our peoples too, them letting us and us letting them know it all in a border-cracking scream of love.