Observation Deck

Dredging Up the Demons

Is collective memory of national nightmares always a good thing?

Foreign Policy_DEF

In 1993, during the Bosnian war, the American journalist David Rieff went to Belgrade to interview a leading Serbian politician. “As I was leaving his office,” Rieff writes in his new book, In Praise of Forgetting, “one of his young aides pressed a folded bit of paper into my hand. It turned out to be blank except for a date: 1453 — the year Orthodox Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottomans.” The religious and ethnic war of the 20th-century Balkans, the note implied, was rooted in injuries dating back centuries. This anecdote gets straight to the moral quandary at the heart of Rieff’s earnest and searching book: Is collective memory always a good thing, or does a harmonious future depend on moving beyond old grievances?

The question is provocative, since it seems to defy a sacred ethical principle of our time, which is the duty to honor the victims of history. Much of modern politics — in places such as China, Rwanda, the Middle East, Venezuela, and Ukraine, to name a few — turns on whether, and how, national histories are ey toept alive. In some cases, “memory wars” turn into actual battles. Recognizing that age-old political and religious hatreds are among the leading threats to peace, some novelists today are viewing historical recollection in a new way: not as a duty, but as a burden. In particular, recent books by two leading novelists — the Japanese-born, U.K.-raised Kazuo Ishiguro and the South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee — dramatize the tension between memory and oblivion.

Ishiguro’s 2015 novel, The Buried Giant, takes place during the Middle Ages and depicts a society shattered by civil war between native Britons and invading Saxons. After generations of violence, the nation has been reduced to a near-barbarous state, its inhabitants afflicted by a chronic memory loss — the result of a supernatural “mist” laid on the countryside by the magician Merlin in order to help people recover from recent events. Ishiguro keeps the reader asking whether this spell is a blessing or a curse. The Briton Sir Gawain wants to sustain amnesia: “Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter,” he warns. But his foe, the Saxon warrior Wistan, demands, “What kind of god is it, sir, wishes wrongs to go forgotten and unpunished?”

Ultimately, memory is restored, but the novel ends before we can see the terrible consequences unfold. “The giant, once buried, now stirs,” the warrior says. “When he soon rises, as he surely will … [m]en will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging.” It could be a description of today’s Syria or Yemen.

It’s hardly surprising that in much of his fiction, Ishiguro, an immigrant whose mother survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, explores how people respond to trauma. In writing The Buried Giant, he told NPR last year, he was initially “tempted to look at the actual contemporary events: the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide, France in the years after the Second World War …” but decided not to “write a book that looked like a piece of reportage.” As a novelist, he said, he is concerned with the “metaphorical.”

If Ishiguro offers a parable about the political implications of erasure, Coetzee, in his enigmatic 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, turns to its spiritual consequences. His protagonist, a boy named David traveling with a chaperone called Simón, arrives in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country, seemingly in the present day. The pair are refugees who have come from a transit camp and are being resettled in the city of Novilla with the help of a social-service agency.

But the characters’ back stories are never revealed, nor does Novilla belong on any map. Rather, this is an allegorical world in which David and Simón seem to have died and crossed over to a kind of purgatory where souls are taught the harsh, simple values of the new society.

The key to their re-education, they are repeatedly told by their new neighbors, is that they must suppress everything about their former lives. And while Simón understands they are “to be washed clean by the passage,” he complains that he “suffer[s] from memories, or the shadows of memories.” In fact, he retains his old lusts and appetites and finds life in Novilla flavorless and dull. Coetzee seems to be asking whether a wholly virtuous life is even worth living.

In the 2015 nonfiction book The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, Coetzee and his co-author, psychoanalyst Arabella Kurtz, ask whether “human culture in general, has created a form of narrative which is on the surface about the unburiability of secrets but under the surface seeks to bury the one secret it cannot countenance: that secrets can be buried, that the past can be obliterated, that justice does not reign?”

Through his characters David and Simón, Coetzee appears to be working on that terrifying question. Simon represents the old, unregenerate human nature, clinging stubbornly to his former life. The author compels readers to sympathize with Simón, since to lose history, Coetzee suggests, would be to lose humanity entirely.

For him and Ishiguro alike, moving on may be virtuous, but it is also ominous, difficult, and contrary to human nature. Shiites and Sunnis, Israelis and Palestinians, Protestants and Catholics might all be better off if they could avoid dwelling on mutual injury. Yet to do so would mean sacrificing the very record of events that gives life structure and meaning.

Memory may indeed be a burden, but it’s one that literature must bear.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August issue of  FP magazine under the title “Never Let It Go.”

Illustration by Edmon De Haro

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