“The first thing she learned working at Vitae was about history: that the present rests upon layers of the past, but is a stratum so unstable, so shot with fault lines, that now and then the then rears up and knocks down the now.”
Often, when I’m choosing a book to read, I stand in front of my bookcase and pull possible titles. Usually there is one that just feels right. In this case, it took me by surprise, as did the story itself. A History of Forgetting has two protagonists: 1) Malcolm, a hairdresser who is dealing with his partner’s worsening Alzheimer’s and 2) Alison, the salon receptionist, and the story’s ingenue. Both are shaken by a brutal event that leaves Alison diving into the history of the Holocaust, and Malcolm even more unable to recover from the loss of his lover. Both are plagued by remembering what others would rather forget – for Malcolm it is personal history, and for Alison, social history, which all of the sudden, has become personal. This painful situation is laced with such love and hate that neither can adjust to normal life and so they take a pilgrimage to Auschwitz together.
Adderson’s language is compelling and poetic without ostentation. I read this book in two days, charmed by the wonderful relationship between Malcolm and Denis, horrified by the cruelties inspired by hatred, saddened by our obligation to remember. This book is a fantastic illustration of what I would have explored in my never-written phd thesis: that fiction is as an effective a vehicle for history as so called “historical” writing, indeed more effective, permitting multiple perspectives and forcing us to participate imaginatively and emotionally in the past.
The only part of the book which I felt didn’t work was the intrusions of strangers linked by the use of second person. While I understand the need to draw the reader into the story, Adderson’s prose is quite sufficient to the task. Each of these passages is heralded by foreign signs, here signposts of a history we can’t quite understand as we journey back. Thus Adderson forces the reader back outside, away from intimacy with the characters, staring at the incomprehensible actions of others – in the present and in the past. For this is the most dangerous thing of all – to forget the personal, to generalize, to fall prey to History and forget the “histories”. Even as the “you” draws us into the story, it makes us spectators, complicit in the violence of inaction and lack of empathy. Unfortunately, the heartbreakingly beautiful final scene of the novel is somewhat overshadowed by one of these heavy handed interludes. But at the risk of ending on a similarly unsatisfactory note when the novel was for the most part well-wrought and moving, let me leave you with a piece of Adderson’s beautifully rendered prose that contains what I think is the novel’s principle message. [Looking at a case of leftover shoes in Auschwitz]:
“The shoes were once all colours – here a red slipper, there a white Cuban heel – but only just. Most are now a near-uniform lustreless brown. Gradually, they have blended together into a mass, indistinguishable and, again, impersonal. They are becoming, once again, abstract. The shoes are fading as memory is fading, melding as they disintegrate…How to put ourselves into these shoes, when these shoes no longer exist?”