“The River Nemunas”
“The River Nemunas” is from Anthony Doerr’s collection, MEMORY WALL (Scibner, 2010). Doerr is the author of five novels and story collections including most recently, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Doerr’s short fiction has won three O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. He has won the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and other awards. In 2007, Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American Novelists. Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons.
Doerr had this to say about writing “The River Nemunas:” A few years ago, I was asked by WildAid, and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation in the UK, to write a short story about an endangered species. The idea was that a bunch of writers from all over the world would each pick a different species, contribute them to a book, and the book would be sold to help fight the illegal wildlife trade.
I figured lots of writers would go for cute, photogenic animals: pandas, chimps, polar bears. So as soon as I saw sturgeon–a huge, mysterious, ugly fish–on a list of threatened species, I knew I had it.
I was writing a book about memory at the time (now titled Memory Wall), trying to use fiction to ask questions about how fragile memory can be, and somehow the sturgeon–particularly the Baltic sturgeon–seemed to fit perfectly. Sturgeon have been around for about 200 million years, and during that time their morphology has hardly changed. Individual sturgeon have lived for 100 years, grown 20 feet long, and reached 4,000 pounds; they seem to me to be visitors from some ancient time, as if they don’t quite belong here in our era of Wal-Marts and airport fast food. They’re abiders, survivors, able to eat anything, live in fresh and saltwater, and exist in subarctic and subtropical environments; they outlasted the dinosaurs.
And now we’re wiping them out. I thought it would be interesting to transplant an orphan into an old place, steeped in human memory, and see if I could get her into contact with an even older memory: a last, mythical sturgeon. Incidentally, a few readers have since written to me to tell me they think this story is an argument for the existence of God. Is it? I have absolutely no idea.
Terrance Refferty said of the collection in his New York Times review: “Rhythm is everything in the six stories Anthony Doerr has to tell in his strange and beautiful new collection, MEMORY WALL. His tales, long or short, all seem somehow to undulate, to surge and recede like the tides.”