Forgetfulness by Ward Just
Aquitaine, often billed as ‘the other south of France,’ is a culturally, geographically diverse region in southwestern France stretching from the world-famous vineyards of Bordeaux in the north to the precipitous Pyrenees of the Basque country in the south. It is there, in the south, in the mountainous village of St. Michel du Valcabrère, that this poetic, quietly unsettling novel is set. Thomas Railles, an American artist and former odd-jobber for the CIA, is living happily there in a self-imposed exile with his beloved French wife, Florette, painting, enjoying good food and wine, wandering the countryside, and listening to his favorite jazz records. One day, while he is busy chatting with some American guests in their home after a long and leisurely lunch, his wife sets out for a walk in the nearby mountains, as she is accustomed to do, and never returns. Night falls, the air grows cold, yet she is nowhere to be found. Set in the wake of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s blundering ‘War on Terror,’ Forgetfulness is an often poignant mediation on the personal, starkly human cost of the violent, evermore fateful intersection of nationalism, religious fanaticism, and unfettered global capitalism.
When his wife’s body is discovered on the mountain, Railles learns that she had broken her ankle while hiking and then been murdered by unknown assailants, probably North African smugglers who regularly plied the region’s rugged mountain trails. The story that ensues is that of Railles’ struggle, in a country not his own, to come to terms with his grief and loneliness and to reorient himself in an age increasingly rife with both State and terrorist violence. Finally, Forgetfulness is the story of his own conflicted relationship with the U.S., with what it means to be an American today. Appalled, bewildered, by the events of 9/11 and eager that justice be served, Railles somehow “lacked anger of the sort that swept all before it and became a cause in itself, a way of life, the anger of the American…” Even when later he finds himself face to face with his wife’s killers, four recently captured Moroccan terrorists, he finds he cannot indulge even the urge to avenge his wife’s death, an impulse that—some would say—is both his duty and due. Instead he simply wants to meet the men, to talk to them, to understand what happened to his wife on the mountain that day, and in this way to puzzle back together at least a little of the world he knew.
On September 11th my brother-in-law, Greg Rodriquez, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center where he was working that morning in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd Floor at One World Trade Center. What makes his story remarkable, what makes it especially remarkable, as well as relevant to this post, was the all-but-immediate reaction of his parents. Within days of Greg’s death, before they had even begun to reckon with their loss, their grief, they wrote an open letter to The New York Times called “Not in Our Son’s Name” in which they spoke out against the use of their son’s death as a pretext for the war then already underway. Even in the midst of their suffering, they understood the trap and futility of vengeance. So, too, Just’s character, Thomas Railles, refuses to seek vengeance as the solution to his own anguish and loss, consoling himself instead with the illusion of forgetfulness, a simple lie that allows him to rise each morning and paint, that allows him to live.
Here, for those interested, is a link to my in-law’s short open letter to The New York Times as read aloud by Benjamin Bratt, as well as a link to a trailer for the documentary made about their brave, affecting, and truly inspirational response to their son’s death, In Our Son’s Name.
Ward Just, born in Michigan in 1953, is best known for his novels, A Family Trust, An Unfinished Season, Exiles in the Garden, and The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.
Peter Adam Nash