One of the paradoxes of a writer’s life is that creating a novel is solitary experience that, if it is done with any degree of integrity, cannot avoid the interconnectedness of our world. We are in this together. A novel, like any work of art, is the product of the relationships of our lives. To tell a story of an individual is to bring forth a life that is inseparable from its many influences.
One cannot, therefore, tell a story of an individual without considering the stories that have brought that individual into being. The traumas of our ancestors are present in each of us, whether we choose to think about them or not.
This subtle truth is present in Gint Aras’s latest novel, The Fugue, the story of a young man recently released from prison back into the working class milieu of Cicero, a suburb of Chicago. Aras skillfully reveals in straightforward, but nonlinear, prose the story of the young man, Yuri, as well as his parents and other figures in the neighborhood.
Central to the narrative are the events that led to the young man’s imprisonment. Yuri is an artist, a sculptor, and he returns to a Cicero that is at once frozen in time and changed beyond recognition. He still has a few friends around, but many of those he’d known had either died or moved away. His parents died in the fire he was accused of setting, which led to his imprisonment.
Slowly Yuri begins to find his place in the world. And this begins with his finding pieces of metal—what others might call “garbage”—to resume sculpting. Now, haunted by the events of his imprisonment, he will sculpt the distorted and disturbing images of his own life; before, as a child, he had sculpted images of his parents.
Indeed, Yuri’s parents provide a window into the ways in which we can be imperiled by ancestral trauma. His father is a man with no memory. He cannot face the demons of the horrors he faced in his homeland, Ukraine, during World War II. His mother is the victim of incest, torn by questions of faith and self-worth.
As much as they try to suppress these memories, as much as they tried to cover up their past with American middle-class values and possessions, the stories of the traumas they endured in Eastern Europe remain with them. They become part of the story of Yuri, of Cicero itself.
And such stories are also the suppressed stories of America. There is perhaps nothing so American as forgetting the past of our ancestors. To become American requires us to forget. This is why my own mother never spoke a word of Italian, why she knew nothing of the life that her mother tried so hard to leave behind. While perhaps few of us had to literally bury a small child when we came to this country or have dealt with incest, America has worked hard to shame us about our pasts. Most American families have buried something for which they are ashamed.
Progress is among our greatest values.
But Yuri understands that to live a textured life, a three-dimensional life, a life of depth, he must uncover that which his father buried. As an artist, he must face uncomfortable and shameful truths. And this is the work that Aras sets out to do in The Fugue.
Among Aras’s strengths as a writer is his attention to the details and nuances of human interaction. The story is revealed in dialogue; the unconscious of the characters is played out with a realism that speaks to the sometimes-grimy world of working-class Chicago. Indeed, the traumas that brought so many from Eastern Europe to Chicago are a constant presence in the story, but one that the characters often have no conscious memory.
America has always been a nation in which people are encouraged to forget—both their own traumas and their own complicity in the traumas of others. In the end, we learn that the temptation to forget comes at a heavy price. Remembering is the work of the storyteller, the novelist. And in this, The Fugue is a not only a highly entertaining book, but an important and brilliant one that is well worth reading.
The Fugue, By Gint Aras. Chicago, Illinois: CCLaP Publishing, December 2015. 516 pages. $17.99.
Theodore Richards is the director and founder of The Chicago Wisdom Projectand the author of several books. His most recent work is his second novel, The Conversions. He is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including two Independent Publisher Awards, The USA Book Award, and the Nautilus Book Award. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughters. For more information go to his website, theodorerichards.com.