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Ward Just writes about responsible, dutiful and laconic American men who serve their country in one way or another. The things that they're asked to do are often dodgy and unpalatable, but they appear to remain uncorrupted. In his latest book, Forgetfulness (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), the men hail from Wisconsin, and the one in whom Mr Just is most interested, Thomas Railles, embodies most of the masculine American virtues and very few of the vices. He would be an attractive character if he were not, like the actual American men who resemble him, adept at deflecting interest from himself onto the things that he's looking at. You don't want to know Thomas so much as you want to see what he sees, in the way that he sees it. If you could do that, then you would know him, but knowing him would remain incidental, just as knowing yourself is.

Some readers might find Mr Just's narrative disagreeably secretive, because the details of Thomas's career as an operative are only hinted. We know that he was drafted by a schoolmate, Bernhard Sindelar, to gather information for the United States while posing as himself, an American painter of portraits. It has been a long time since his last mission, but Bernhard and Russ (another schoolmate) come to visit him at his home in the Pyrenees. It's a sentimental journey. The three men lose themselves in talk while Florette, Thomas's French wife, says that she's going out for a walk. The novel begins with her predicament: she has fallen, twisted her ankle, and encountered four brigands. They carry her down the mountain for a while, but in the end she is baggage, impeding their mission. A coup de grâce is administered.

Time passes, and the brigands are apprehended, no doubt thanks to Bernhard's vengeful zeal. Thomas is invited to go to Le Havre, to witness their interrogation by Antoine, the best interrogator on the French force. Before Antoine can do much of anything, Thomas asks him for an hour alone (in front of a one-way mirror) with Yussef, the ringleader. Although this is "not in the protocol," Antoine permits it. Afterward, he joins Thomas for dinner at a café.

So you didn't use the bastinado.

No, Thomas said.

You decided to spare him. Yussef.

Thomas shook his head. Sparing didn't come into it. I don't care if he's spared or not spared. My wife is gone. What do I care about what happens to him?

Antoine moved his beer glass in circles on the table. Surely you believe in justice, he said. A society cannot function without it. I am forced to conclude you are without conscience.

Civic conscience, Thomas said.

Yes, civic conscience. The other kind, too.

Perhaps, Thomas said.

I watched you. I watched you very closely. You wanted to do it. I wasn't sure you wouldn't beat him to death, one blow after another. I know that look. It's the look of anticipation of high satisfaction, justice done and seen to be done. No question of the Moroccan's guilt.

My satisfaction doesn't come into it, Thomas said. He took a long swallow of beer and looked again at his watch.

And if we release him tomorrow?

You won't.

No, we won't. You're correct about that. He'll be with us for some time. Yussef and the other three are working for someone, we don't know who. But we'll know everything before we're through. This business takes a strong stomach, you know. Patience. Attention to detail.

Good luck with it, Thomas said.

Perhaps it also requires a certain ideology.

And what would that be?

Antoine smiled and gave an exaggerated shrug. Anger, he said. The common denominator of all ideology. A belief in the righteousness of your cause and the squalor of all other causes. It comes easily to me because I am fundamentally a policeman. It's not for everyone, however. You need an excellent memory. You must never, ever forget. Forgetfulness leads to -

Forgiveness? Thomas said.

No, not that. Do you think so?

No, I don't. What were you about to say?

Antoine smiled again. He said, A lack of focus. A lack, I should say, of zeal.

We know that Thomas did indeed consider striking, and perhaps killing, Yussef, and we know why he did not. But Thomas does not share the reason for his circumspection with Antoine. What he says about not caring if Yussef is spared is true; it was not compassion that held him back. It was knowing how expensive "justice" would be for his own future, his inability to forget having struck blows and broken a face. (Thomas is a portraitist, remember.) But he doesn't tell Antoine. He likes, even admires the Frenchman, but he hardly knows him, and would probably not tell his old friend Bernhard unless there were a very urgent reason for doing so. So he remains somewhat mysterious to Antoine, and Antoine, in turn, admires that. At first, Antoine accuses Thomas of a lack of conscience, but this is a feint that Thomas takes in kind. Then he suggests that what Thomas lacks is anger. That's why Thomas interrupts him with "Forgiveness?" Thomas believes that Antoine can only see forgiveness behind his "sparing" Yussef. But it is not that. To forget anger is to lose track.

That's good theory for a policeman, but very destructive for an artist. Thomas's work for Bernhard has already burdened him with a few powerfully unpleasant memories, and he knows that anger is toxic for him, something to be gotten rid of at once. In the interrogation room, it almost overwhelms him, but only almost. As he confesses to Yussef (before Yussef says a word), Thomas has been fortunate. He has been "dealt a fine hand, played it well." We see that his character is fortunate.

Like Graham Greene, Mr Just writes very seriously but with the lightest touch in the world. His prose is as limpid as the water in a rock pool, and just as refreshing.

Thomas pushed a button on the stereo and Billie Holiday was back on her sailboat in the moonlight, a voice filled with regret and desire; revenge would be the furthest thing from her mind. Successful revenge required the cramped discipline of an accountant and she preferred the unruly emotions of the spendthrift. She needed protection but there was none and so she sang. He threw a log on the fire and stood staring into the flames and then he threw another on for good measure. For what he was about to do Thomas needed fortification and so he poured a glass of calvados and listened to the song, true American blues, imitated everywhere in the world, never equaled. He wondered if there was anywhere in America now where you could hear the real thing. The Mississippi Delta of course, probably New Orleans, perhaps South Side Chicago. It would be a good thing if presidents were obligated to listen to the blues in the vast formality of the White House and a good thing also if they were obliged to drink while listening. The blues would give them an idea of the limits of human ambition and the consequences of righteous action, an appreciation of grief and ecstasy and inscrutable providence and the certainty of betrayal, along with the imprecision of memory and often its loss altogether. Truth and falsehood were next of kin. That was what Lincoln knew.

As for "what he was about to do," you'll have to read Forgetfulness yourself. You won't regret it.

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