My Year in Reading 2015: Submerged Histories

[Spoilers for The Buried Giant, Boy, Snow, Bird, and My Brilliant Friend ahead]

Three of the best books I read this year were novels that dwell on submerged histories of violence. One, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, unfolds on a misty medieval English landscape whose inhabitants live in a spellbinding haze of forgetfulness. Gradually, Ishiguro reveals that the epidemic of forgetfulness emanates from the breath of a dragon, tasked by the sorcerer Merlin to dissolve people’s memories of King Arthur’s brutal war against the Saxons. The novel ends with the dragon’s death at the hands of a Saxon warrior, and thus with the rumblings of a coming battle. Britons and Saxons who once lived together in an uneasy peace will, when their histories are restored, turn again to war. “Who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now?” asks one character. Another responds, “The giant, once well buried, now stirs.”

The Buried Giant didn’t get great reviews, but it’s the kind of book that digs into your subconscious and resurfaces again long after you read it. I read it in March but think of it often. Like all fantasy, it’s really about us. Most of the time, we forget that the land on which we dwell is haunted by violent histories—war, slavery, genocide, colonialism, theft. It’s especially easy to forget if your ancestors were the ones on King Arthur’s side. Ishiguro’s novel doesn’t offer any easy platitudes or lessons. Forgetting the past means living in a tenuous truce that occasionally erupts into a violence we don’t really understand. Remembering the past is clarifying but painful, as old injustices never rectified come to light. Justice and peace seem as elusive in The Buried Giant as they are in real life.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, a fairy tale set in 1950s New England, is about the uncovering of old family secrets—both the characters’ and the nation’s. It’s startling and impressive that a British author could write such a good American novel, one that captures the US’s historical consciousness so idiosyncratically and yet so perfectly. Boy, Snow, Bird is a story about passing in the mostly-white (fictional) town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts, and about the buried cruelties that lie under the town’s idyllic surface. Fairy tales lend themselves to psychoanalytic readings—they are so often about the return of the repressed, how it bubbles up into one’s consciousness in a drama of revelation. Oyeyemi’s adaptation of the Snow White story expertly deploys this psychoanalytic effect, weaving it together with American history to show us what rose-tinted memories of “the good old days” must disavow—race, racism, even one’s own family.

I don’t want to speak more specifically about the plot of Boy, Snow, Bird, because it’s easily spoilable and I think you should read it—it’s truly great. But I do want to say a bit about why it’s important to me. One of my (many) teaching failures this year occurred with a writing assignment that asks students to reflect critically on an episode in their own lives. One of the prompts for this assignment, building off some short stories we had read, encouraged students to write about a time when they first became aware of their own gender/race/class identity. What I found with this assignment was a common pattern among white students: They had grown up in a mostly-white neighborhood or town like Flax Hill, and thus didn’t “discover” racism until (middle school/high school/college/moving/take your pick). Fortunately, in their first encounter with “diversity,” they were never racist, but, they explain, they became more open-minded by learning or living with people different from themselves. The problem, as I came to see it, was that in these personal narratives, the white neighborhood always represents a pre-racial innocence, and the students never ask how their neighborhood came to be so white. To them it seems natural. I think this pattern is my own fault, not the students’. It’s unrealistic to expect that white college freshmen would know much about redlining, white flight, or mortgage discrimination unless I teach it to them. One of the many great things about Boy, Snow, Bird, though, is that it shatters the American illusion of pre-racial innocence by showing what must be excluded to create the illusion.

In Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first part in a tetralogy about two girls growing up in Naples at midcentury, one of the key coming-of-age moments occurs when the girls, as teenagers, learn about Italy’s fascist history. As children, they know that their neighborhood is full of enmity and violence, but these shadows are curiously unmoored from history. “I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad,” Lenù explains. “Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.” As teenagers, however, Lenù and her best friend Lila befriend a communist, Pasquale, who tells them things about the past—“Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic”—that they have never been taught before. It is a revelation, one worth quoting at length:

[Lila] said that we didn’t know anything, either as children or now, that we were therefore not in a position to understand anything, that everything in the neighborhood, every stone or piece of wood, everything, anything you could name, was already there before us, but we had grown up without realizing it, without ever even thinking about it. Not just us. Her father pretended that there had been nothing before. Her mother did the same, my mother, my father, even Rino. And yet Stefano’s grocery store before had been the carpenter shop of Alfredo Peluso, Pasquale’s father. And yet Don Achille’s money had been made before. And the Solaras’ money as well. She had tested this out on her father and mother. They didn’t know anything, they wouldn’t talk about anything. Not Fascism, not the king. No injustice, no oppression, no exploitation. They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend their money both at Don Achille’s son’s and at the Solaras’, and sent us, too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.

The history of violence and corruption inheres in the very material of the neighborhood—the stones, the wood, the grocery store, and most importantly, the money of its richest denizens. Faced with the choice that The Buried Giant poses, forgetfulness and quiet versus remembrance and vengeance, the parents choose to forget. But, as Ferrante shows, to forget is not to erase the past but to inadvertently continue it.

My Brilliant Friend ends with a wedding that brings together former enemies but fails to achieve genuine reconciliation among them. I have not read the sequels yet, but I suspect that hostilities will continue between Lila and the Solaras. After all, Ferrante has not yet resolved Lila’s insight that her neighbors’ wealth (and her eventual husband’s wealth too) comes from the postwar black market. She has simply placed a stone on top of it.

These novels’ understandings of history speak powerfully to me today. History is the thing we keep trying to bury that keeps resurfacing. I see this not just in the fiction I read this year, but also in the essays that stuck with me the most. In one of these essays Eula Biss, drawing on Ta-Nehisi Coates, imagines the history of white Americans as a “forgotten debt.” It’s partly a metaphor for the intangible privileges of whiteness, and partly a literal reference to how money itself is tied up in racist histories:

Once you’ve been living in a house for a while, you tend to begin to believe that it’s yours, even though you don’t own it yet. When those of us who are convinced of our own whiteness deny our debt, this may be an inevitable result of having lived for so long in a house bought on credit but never paid off. We ourselves have never owned slaves, we insist, and we never say the n-word. ‘‘It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill,’’ Coates writes of Americans, ‘‘and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.’’

My reading this year reminded me, in a hundred little ways, that history shapes my life, and never more powerfully than when I forget it and feel at home in the present.

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