Sunday, March 30, 2014

Forgetfulness by Ward Just

An aging man tries to forget his wife’s death and his past involvement in American crimes abroad

Thomas Railles, a successful painter, who retired (retreated) to a mountainous French village, is pulled back to his old life as a quasi CIA operative after his beloved wife freezes to death in the snowy mountains, either abandoned or perhaps even perhaps murdered by four suspected Islamic terrorists. Two of Thomas’s old school chums, both experienced CIA operatives who happen to be visiting, vow revenge. Bernhard, the colder blooded of the two, makes good on his pledge and, some months later invites Thomas to witness the bastinado interrogation of the four terrorists. Thomas really does not want to go, but does so anyway.

This book was built on a few gripping set pieces tenuously supported by a contrived plot that hardly genuflects to plausibility. Are we really supposed to believe three high school friends end up working for the CIA and living in Europe? Or that torture interrogations are scripted like Broadway musicals? The powerful scenes were the stream of conscious narration of the wife freezing to death, the interrogation scene, Thomas making his way back to his house in a terrific rain storm, and the final scene where declining Bernhard meets up with Thomas on a Maine beach. Inspired silliness. I’m not sure if this type of book is my cup of tea – the Hemingwayesque stoic Midwest narrator embroiled in the world’s evil.  For me, the evil didn't seem all that evil.  Thomas feels guilty, but he's clearly a well bred kindly man who couldn't hurt a fly.  And didn't hurt a fly. Perhaps forgetfulness, for him, is an abdication of responsibility.

Thomas drinks a lot of espressos and calvados, plays pool by himself and misses his wife. So much of his feeling is unexpressed but you sense that if it ever was expressed it would be pretty pedestrian. Part of my problem is that I never got a sense of the scope of the crimes of the CIA, or the scope of the events Thomas had been involved in. 9-11 is invoked like the beating of a drum.  There is absolutely no sense of humor in the piece.

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