I Spy, thrice

It has taken me awhile, but finally, back to my list of intriguing espionage-related fiction this year.

Surprisingly, Ward Just's Forgetfulness is my second nominee, after William Boyd's Restless, as a current literary novel that can fit in satisfyingly with some of the great Graham Greene/John le Carre spy thrillers.

It is hardly a genre book. People looking for suspenseful chase scenes or elaborate "tradecraft" conspiracies will be disappointed. Mr. Just, however, does supply some stunning set pieces. The French wife of an elderly painter living in a village in the Pyrenees dies mysteriously, prompting his old "agency" friends to hunt down the smugglers or terrorists responsible. The interrogation sequence alone is one of the most remarkable ever rendered -- appalling, fascinating, almost clinically reported. Yet little real violence occurs.

I wrote "surprisingly" because Forgetfulness is rather different from the other Ward Just novels I've read. Perhaps it's because of their Washington, D.C.-government settings, but I've rarely found them compelling -- a little too quiet. A slender novel itself (258 pages -- and it's only that length because of the pages' reduced size and larger typeface), Forgetfulness has a dry, subtle, insinuating power. The minor-but-still-respected painter, Thomas Railles, has really only been an occasional contract agent, an "odd jobber," and his wife's death leaves him hollowed out. A reclusive neighbor-friend, an elderly British Word War I vet who deserted from the trenches, also dies, making Thomas wonder about any possible "separate peace" in the midst of war and whether some possible enemy of his own sought to punish him through his wife.

The title is significant because it becomes plain that only two things stand against the oblivion, the forgetfulness into which we all will disappear some day. One of them is art, and Thomas finally creates a portrait of his wife from memory.

The other is revenge.

December 6, 2006 10:39 AM |



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