Forgetfulness, by Ward Just

This 2006 work is another unexpected novel from Ward Just, a novel with little external drama but considerable internal tension. It is about an American in Europe, a successful portrait artist named Thomas Railles who in the past has made life more interesting by taking on odd jobs from two boyhood friends working for the CIA. But, now in his fifties, he has given up such dalliances with international intrigue, has moved to southwestern France, has married a local woman, Florette, and has settled down to sketch and draw portraits of the locals.

As the novel opens, his wife is injured while hiking alone in the nearby foothills of the Pyrenees, and we experience Florette’s fear and doubt as four mysterious men, speaking an unknown language, encounter her and at first seem to want to help. It is a beautiful introduction to this novel, for in her helpless condition she is prompted to review her past life and her contentment with her second marriage to this American artist. Here is a chapter that stands alone as we share this 54-year-old woman’s uncertain future, her inability to balance the intentions of her “rescuers” with their frustration, and yet her conviction that her absent but loyal husband will soon rescue her.

The remainder of the novel, however, is from her husband’s viewpoint, as Thomas, mourning the loss of his wife, now finds it difficult to survive in a distant corner of the world, with no close friends and unable to find the usual satisfaction in front of a sketch pad or an easel. What is he to do with his life?

But then another option confronts him, as his two CIA friends, Bernhard and Russ, return. They commiserate with him and offer to use their back-channel contacts to find the men responsible for his wife’s death. And thus “bring closure,” they say, to Thomas’ pain.

Except, Thomas is not interested in that type of closure, or in any type of revenge. He just wants to survive, to find meaning again in his life and in his art. And for much of this novel, the reader is inside Thomas’ mind, as the novel revolves around those concerns. Which means there is far less action and far less dialogue than in most novels. And yet there is no lack of drama. Even a walk home through driving rain offers Thomas a brief challenge. For, even then, his mind is reacting to nature’s unexpected onslaught; and we are learning more and more about this American abroad who is trying to survive, for he needs to adjust to both the lost of certainty that occurred after he lost his wife and to his county’s loss of innocence at the hands of the terrorists who razed the World Trade Center.

Thomas is forced to confront a further uncertainty when his CIA friends return to tell him that they have arrested four Moorish men whom they say killed his wife; and they invite him to witness the next interrogation. But as he witnesses a torture session at the hands of a policeman named Antoine, it does not offer Thomas the “closure’ his friends had promised him.

And so, he insists on confronting the men alone, showing them a portrait of the woman they killed, appealing to their humanity, and asking them why they did what they did. He takes this approach because to anticipate further violence, such as he has just witnessed being done to the prisoners, seems fruitless. Indeed, it has helped both Thomas and the reader understand better the failure behind the atmosphere of revenge that has recently permeated the American psyche. And it confirms both the author and his hero as being among those who believe that to be human requires that one forget any idea of revenge.

The word “forget” and its variations, appear frequently in the opening stages of this novel, but its implications are not emphasized, and it does not become an early theme. Instead, author Just seems more confortable in letting the idea slowly develop, until the final chapter, when Thomas retires to a sparse, foggy island off the coast of Maine. He is far from his Midwestern upbringing and his expatriate life in France. And his lonely life there, with little human contact, enables him to forget his espionage capers and the loss of his comfortable life abroad with his wife. He can at last concentrate on his art.

Whereupon, a visit from his former colleagues enforces, for him and for us, a final determination to forget the past. It is perhaps ironical, in fact, that this entire novel is built around Thomas being forced to remember his bachelor past, his espionage past, and his expatriate past, even as he seeks a world without that past.

This is a world, Harvey Freedenberg says in Bookpage, “where actions have consequences and moral debts must be repaid.” And this is what raises this novel for me to its true literary level. For it is about more than Thomas Railles. It also personalizes his and the author’s concerns about the change that terrorism, whether in the Pyrenees or in New York City, has introduced into all our lives.

But what is interesting is that the decision for revenge that Thomas faces is never itself addressed as a moral dilemma. Rather than the concept of there being a moral debt, which does exist, what he addresses is the practicality of revenge. To inflict pain on the four men will not relieve him of his own pain, he decides, nor of the loss of his wife. So why do it? Instead, relieving himself of his pain becomes a psychological decision—between forgetting and not forgetting. And he refuses to be swept up in the revenge atmosphere required by not forgetting. Because he is better than that. And we admire him for it. Indeed, we seem to admire almost any American hero who values his own independence above worldly concerns.

Every Ward Just novel seems to be far different from his companion novels. This novel has been no exception, which is why this reader looks forward to catching up with still more of his work. (November, 2019)

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