Mercifully human-beings can forget and they should

I have a very sharp episodic memory and I often (undesirably) boast of it. However a novel of my favourite authoress – Dame Agatha Christie has given me a new perspective of thinking. This novel is Elephants Can Remember which has forced me to think whether it is required to keep everything in your memory and is it not desirable to forget certain things whose memory renders pain and nothing else.

Agatha Christie has given the analogy of elephant to the people habitual of keeping quite old things stored in their memory only to retrieve them later with or without a reason. By this analogy, I am also an elephant. However, now onwards I will try to shed this tag of being an elephant because there’s indeed no need to remember anything and everything that happened in one’s life or that came to one’s knowledge. One can’t wash facts away from his / her memory with deliberate effort but he / she can definitely try not to dwell upon them when they are distasteful or painful.Elephants-Can-Remember-v3Elephants Can Remember is based on the plot of a very old incident of joint suicide by a husband and a wife which gets fresh attention when the now-grown-up daughter of the couple is all set to marry her beau. It’s the mother of the would-be groom who is interested in digging out the buried skeleton of the mysterious double suicide and make it a point to oppose the marriage which is on the cards. She imposes herself upon a popular authoress – Mrs. Ariadne Oliver and pressurizes her to find out whether it’s the mother of the girl who shot her father first and then committed suicide or it’s the other way round as the shot dead bodies of the twosome were found at a cliff. Kind, benevolent and mature Mrs. Oliver finds this task as uncalled for but as she is the godmother of the would be bride – Celia Ravenscroft, she is not able to get rid of it and when her goddaughter also insists her to find out the truth so that she is able to get rid of the unpleasant thoughts arising out of the hearsay regarding that tragedy, Mrs. Oliver has no option but to do something in this regard.

And she does. Not alone but by seeking the help of the world famous Belgian detective – Hercule Poirot. Both Mrs. Oliver and Poirot meet several people and find that one fact after another is coming out to cast a new look on what happened more than a decade back. The interesting thing in this regard is that everything points to the fact that the dead couple was very fond of each other and the mutual love the husband and the wife was beyond any doubt. Then why the hell did the couple make a suicide pact ? It is also evident that no third person could be imagined who might have shot the twosome dead. This is not at all a case of double murder. Quite interestingly, just a few weeks earlier, the twin sister of the wife had fallen from the same cliff and died. Questions are aplenty for both Mrs. Oliver and Poirot. Mrs. Oliver visits and talks to several oldies in this context who know something about or who feel that they know something about the tragedy. She terms such people as elephants because elephant is an animal which does not forget anything. ‘Elephants can remember’, opines Mrs. Oliver. However here she has to extract information not from the real elephants but from those who can be compared to the elephants as far as their memory is concerned. She digs out facts which Poirot studies and analyzes, doing some leg-work on his own too. And when pursued, the facts do reveal themselves. Old sins leave long shadows.

Finally Poirot unravels the mystery of the deaths before daughter of the Ravenscroft couple – Celia and her beau – Desmond Burton-Cox by calling them alongwith Mrs. Oliver and an old female acquaintance of the Ravenscroft family – Zelie in the same house situated near the cliff where the dying-duo had lived during its last days. But after knowing everything, what’s the best way for the young couple ? Keep the facts in their memory forever like the elephants do or forget them, leaving the past behind to make a new beginning ? The young would-be bride and groom prove to be mature enough to move on in life, leaving the ghost of the past behind. Those who died were human-beings only and whatever happened was perhaps the only appropriate thing to have taken place then. The daughter now feels proud of her dead parents and moves on in life thanking those who have taken pains to reveal the truth before herself and her beau.3971724370_4969172221The works of Agatha Christie usually contain two salient features – 1. A psychological basis of the story, examining the mental status and the thought-trains of the characters involved, 2. Unravelling of the suspense on a layer-by-layer basis just like an onion is peeled off. These two features are present in Elephants Can Remember too just like several of her other works. The celebrity authoress has not only kept a mentally unstable character (a significant one) in the story but also delved into the psyche of many characters to explain logically why he / she did something. That’s something which separates her apart from the other mystery-writers, putting her in a league of her own. After reading the complete novel and coming to know of the solution to the mystery, the reader gets complete satisfaction because there’s a logical explanation to everything asserted.

Secondly, as her style of narrating is, Agatha Christie never heaps the facts on the head of the reader in the climax. She allows the facts to come out one by one and provides enough food for thought to the reader, giving him / her an opportunity to work out a probable solution to the mystery himself / herself. It’s different that thinking about a probable solution or the probable culprit is a next to impossible task for a reader of her novel. The picture gets clearer and clearer as the layers of dust are removed but the complete colourful picture is visible to the reader only when the last particle of the dust has been removed by the authoress in the climax. Result ? Obvious. The reader remains hooked throughout, guessing continuously but failing to think of the most convincing resolution of the mystery.Elephants_can_Remember_First_Edition_Cover_1972However Elephants Can Remember is definitely not among the best of Agatha Christie. It is a cut below her best. The authoress has gone slow during more than 2/3 rd of the novel, leading to fatigue of the reader. The narrative picks up pace during the final 80-90 pages only when the facts start pouring in relatively fast. Perhaps the authoress herself had felt it and that’s why we find a very small chapter titled as ‘INTERLUDE’ in between the novel just like INTERVAL in the middle of a feature film. During the first 200 odd pages of the novel, the same facts keep on getting repeated through different mouths, generating sluggishness in the narrative. That’s a minus point of this novel amidst the pluses.

The pluses are many. In addition to the brilliant plot, the psychological study of the characters and the curiosity factor; the novel contains a bit of humour too. Calling the oldies with sharp (or deemed sharp) memory as elephants itself is humorous. A telephonic conversation between Mrs. Oliver and Poirot is so humorous that it is able to provoke a generous laughter in the reader.

While recommending this novel to the mystery fans in general and the Christie fans in particular, I reproduce the final statement of Mrs. Oliver from this novel to sign off – ‘Elephants can remember but we are human-beings and mercifully human-beings can forget‘.

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About Jitendra Mathur

A Chartered Accountant with literary passion and a fondness for fine arts
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