A History of Forgetting
By Caroline Adderson
A History of Forgetting by Vancouver-based author Caroline Adderson – a newly revised version of a novel originally published in 1999 – deals with the complexity of living in the present with full compassion for others and the challenge of learning of the difficulties, pains and triumphs others have lived through, with full empathy. It shows that most often humans seek to forget, to suppress what has happened before, or at least to suspend our memory of the past and our awareness of horrors elsewhere so that we can simply go on with our daily lives.
Adderson deals with this essential human condition by creating a story within the frame of a visit to Auschwitz, which precedes and follows the main body of the tale. It concerns an individual facing a Poland in the mid-1990s, just coming out of Communist rule, where most have not yet fully come to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust and where there seems to be a prevailing mood to keep what happened there at arms length, in its proper place, although willing to benefit from the desire of others to remember.
Within this frame she deals first with the story of Malcom Firth, an aging Vancouver hairdresser whose partner, Denis, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, is forgetting everything, but suddenly starts to express hostility to Jews. Malcom has to face the challenge of dealing with his partner while facing the rapid change and modernization in his place of work as it is sold and remodelled, and the pressures of trying to hang on to his aging clientele in this milieu.
Then, Alison, a new hairdresser at the salon, a naive young woman hoping to learn, gradually discovers the pain and suffering around her at work. Eventually, she comes to understand the seemingly stand-offish Malcom and the pain he is going through.
As Alison’s world expands, she comes in contact with a Holocaust survivor and gradually sees the disparity between the way those around her deal with the suppression of memory and the way the survivor remembers but goes on in dignity, still able to show compassion and sympathy for others.
This disparity becomes a terrible reality when a co-worker, a funny, entertaining and compassionate gay man whose face is out of kilter due to birth defects, is killed during a vicious beating with a golf club at the hands of a neo-Nazi.
This brings to a head Alison and Malcom’s growing awareness of the nature of the human condition. Alison becomes obsessed with pictures from the Holocaust and angers both her co-workers and her boyfriend, who cannot understand why she cannot just let her thoughts go and get back to normal. Finally, she must leave the boyfriend and take a break from her co-workers.
Together, Alison and Malcom set off to try to understand what links all these things together by travelling to Poland to visit Auschwitz.
How Alison and Malcom see their profession as hairdressers as caring for others and serving their basic needs provides them with a path towards understanding what keeps all of us going as human beings. It is the compassion we show each other every day, the compassion that is missing entirely in the Poles they meet, and which flickers only intermittently in co-workers at the hair salon back home. Through compassion and kindness, we can remove the suffering caused by the past while honouring the memories we cannot forget.
Adderson has had the good fortune of being able to republish A History of Forgetting, seeking, she says, to fix some of the problems she and others saw in the original version.
In this new version, Adderson’s poetic style draws the reader into the story with skill, and she handles the complex topic with sensitivity and humour. This is a novel that will repay the reader with insights into the nature of memory and what it means to be a compassionate human being.