This book was chosen for me by my good friend Philip Walmsley (@M2Phil) when I put a request out on Twitter for a recommendation for my next read. And am I glad he recommended it!
This is one of those books that makes you think, “This is unique. There is nothing else out there quite like this.” And I think I’m right.
The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder is compelling, gripping, vivid, emotional, heartbreaking, funny, philosophical, and, quite frankly, genius. It was so much more than what I thought it was going to be when it first came through the post. It made me think and evaluate life, and brought back all the philosophical musings I had back in college when I was studying Philosophy at A-Level. It lead to discussions with my family and friends. It also introduced me to a biscuit I’d never tried before – the madeleine! (I read about it for the first time in this book, and then by sheer coincidence they were selling them at a charity bake sale at work the next day. Well, I had to try one. Purely for philosophical research, you understand.)
On his twenty-first birthday, Maximilian Ponder shut himself away from the world to embark on his greatest project: an attempt to record every memory in his brain. It should have taken just three years. But three long decades pass. Now Max lies dead, surrounded by his magnum opus – The Catalogue – a library of notebooks and journals that he hoped would form the map of a single human mind. And before his friend Adam Last can call the police and inform them of Max’s death, one rather gruesome task remains for the project to be complete…
Interspersed with extracts from Max’s Catalogue, Adam tells the story of the man he knew – a man whose life changed dramatically the day he buried a dead labrador and fought a duel with his father. What emerges is both the story of a friendship and also of a lifelong obsession, a quest to understand the human mind, memory, and how we construct the story of our lives.
The other night as I sat reading the book, my boyfriend turned to me and remarked, “That doesn’t look like it’s got a very happy ending.” And I guess he’s right – how can a book that immediately starts with a passage referring to the protagonist’s dead body have a happy ending?! – but this didn’t put me off at all. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love it when books end happily but my enjoyment of this book didn’t suffer. The substance, the message, the philosophical nature of the story more than made up for the fact that it has a rather unpleasant subject matter. It’s not just about death. It’s about the effects and consequences of death, yes, but it’s also about life and the celebration of life, and how we can make sure that our lives have some kind of impact on the world, even when we’re gone.
While Max’s last name – Ponder – is an obvious little play on words, it doesn’t come across as trying too hard. It fits him perfectly – after all, more than half of his life is spent pondering the idea of memory and death.
‘When I become a famous philosopher, I want something more individual than “Ponderian.”‘
‘You could always have “Ponderous”,’ said Ravi.
‘Fuck off,’ said Max.
‘Ponderosan,’ I suggested.
‘You can fuck off too, Last. I want Ponderic.’
And perhaps it’s just the English student in me being far too pedantic and analytical, but I love the idea of Adam Last’s surname reflecting on the fact that he stays with Max until his very last moments, and beyond. In fact, Adam remarks in the book that people found the ironic contrast in his name – Adam, the ‘first’ ever man, with the surname ‘Last’ – amusing, so of course we could analyse names until the cows come home, but that would be taking away from the true beauty of the book.
Memory pops up again as a theme in this book, like in so many books I’ve been reading before it. Of course Max’s project is to record every memory his brain has ever had, every scrap of knowledge, even if he suspects that memory to be disjointed or wrong – if his mind remembers and perceives it that way, then that is what he must write down. As he remarks himself in the Catalogue, “Memory involves all sorts of cross-wiring and quality control before it bubbles up to the surface.”
The reason Max is so preoccupied with the idea of memory and death is because both his uncle and his dad die of a horrific hereditary brain tumour. Through his grief he recognises that memory is all that people have and that memory is what makes a person who they are. It’s this fear and this point of view that drives him to catalogue his own brain.
Every time someone dies it’s like the world loses a big chunk of information for ever. I don’t mean to say that every bit of that information is especially valuable, but it’s surely just as valuable as a fragment of pot from a Roman villa, or a fossil from some riverbed in China.
Despite the questionable (at best) life choice that Max makes in the book, I found myself relating heavily to his thoughts and especially his fears. Scarily, in the past I’ve often found myself thinking these exact things, and on more than one occasion I’ve considered starting my own ‘catalogue’ of sorts. I remember a couple of months back, before ever hearing of this book, driving down the motorway and musing on my life and how many people I’ve known and met and interacted with and had friendships or relationships or working relationships with. I imagined myself putting together a scrapbook or account of everyone I’d known and met and how they’d influenced my life, so that when I died there would be something left behind, and people would know that their lives and mine had some meaning and impact on others. Now, I know this is nothing like the scale of cataloging your own brain, but it’s for this reason that the concept of this book was not completely unrelatable or indeed too far-fetched for me. I understood Max. I understand the value that he places in the power of human experience and memory, and the loss he feels when someone dies and all of that disappears.
What do we do with the richest information we have available – the material locked away in the brains of four billion people? You know what we do? Sod all.
He struggles with the notion that we have memories that are actually there, but we can’t access easily and at will. In this passage he talks about how he knows that he used to know the Swahili word for ‘friend’, but try as he might, he cannot remember it. Then, years later, it comes to him:
…and then, like a bloody great tsunami, this word emerged in slow motion and came thundering through the ether towards me, a suffocating deluge of a word, a word that slapped me across the face like a saltwater surge and the word was – ‘rafiki’. Now, I can honestly swear that you could have strapped me naked to a wheel and threatened to apply ten thousand volts to my bollocks and you couldn’t have coaxed that three-syllable word out of my sluggard brain.
It is the realisation that memory can not always be summoned at will that makes Max come to the conclusion that three years will not be enough to undertake such a massive project. It changes from being a dedicated research project to a simple way of life.
I love the way the book deals with relationships. Obviously Max and Adam’s relationship is quite unlike any other. As Max locks himself away from the outside world, with strict rules that he can never know what’s happening other than within the four walls of his home, he becomes completely dependent on Adam to feed him, take care of his estate, to arrange the binding and organisation of the volumes of his Catalogue, and to make sure that the outside world does not pollute his project. This makes their friendship truly unique, requiring a huge amount of trust from Max and a massive sacrifice from Adam. He gives up a promising marketing career in order to take care of Max’s business and devote himself to the project.
Through a non-linear narrative, Ironmonger builds up a vivid story which allows the reader to fully understand why Adam would make such a huge sacrifice for Max. He takes us back to Africa in the 1960s, the place and time that the two boys first forge a friendship. From there the novel takes us on a journey through both Adam’s and Max’s lives and minds. There is a lot of love and dependence within the novel, and nothing feels unbelievable or out of place. Adam continuously feels that he is working for, and waiting for, Max, but he never wavers in his dedication to his friend. As a reader, you begin to love the men for their strange but strong relationship with each other.
I seemed to spend my life waiting for Max.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found none of it boring or hard work. It was a real pleasure to read. I would like to thank Phil for recommending this book to me. I could write a much longer review, but whatever I do write won’t do the novel justice. All I can do is urge you to read it yourself. You definitely won’t be disappointed.