Saturday, February 14, 2009

Torture, Memory, and the State

Glen Duncan's A Day and a Night and a Day uses torture as a mnemonic device, provoking questions about the way atrocious acts make one investigate the past. The use of mnemonic devices in literature recalls more subtle moments where involuntary memory is provoked, such as Proust's famous biscuit in In Search of Lost Time. Duncan's novel also links to the cliche of one's life flashing before one's eyes, as in Richard Flanagan's Death of a River Guide, where a man recalls his life as he is trapped drowning between rocks beneath the surface of a river. However, Duncan's use of torture as mnemonic device asks a larger question about the way a country re-envisions its past from the new position of torturer. The tortured subject in the text recalls his past as a black man in America during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam era, allowing the text to revisit questions of race and war, linking them to the tortured present and future.

Torture becomes a sort of tumor in society in the same way the Vietnam war was. Duncan uses the My Lai massacre to make his point: "Whatever you thought of war, soldiers in it became the bearers of the world's strange tidings. Among which was the news from My Lai. America faced a tumorous question about itself from its own sons." Duncan's example forms a link between the way Vietnam, specifically the My Lai massacre, made Americans see themselves in a new light and the way torture should do the same. Both Vietnam and today's war on terrorism amount to exceptional circumstances where otherwise unheard of acts are carried out or justified based on the emergency at hand. The question becomes, do we, as a nation, treat the atrocious act as a mnemonic device or a convenient failure of memory justified by the exceptional circumstances? Duncan prefers the former.

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