Thursday, 25 November 2010

Human Traces: Vanishing in Northern Ireland

‘The disappeared’ of Northern Ireland, ‘los desaparecidos’ of Spain, ‘the missing’ of Latin America: all have ‘vanished into thin air’. There is something curious about the words we use to talk about abduction. They describe not what became of the victim but rather the blank space left by the victim’s absence. This negative description admits to the obvious lack of knowledge about what happened; indeed, this is precisely why these cases are so disturbing for friends and relatives. It is an empty space filled over time by a mixture of dread and hope about what is imagined to have happened to the victim. There is also something about them that captivates our collective imagination. Perhaps it is the ghostliness of disappearing without a trace, and of not being fully dead in the minds of relations who yearn for some kind of closure. In effect, I think our attitude to life’s end clings to classical narrative structures: we think it proper that everybody’s life is due some kind of formal acknowledgement through funeral ceremonies and the like as a way of putting a lid on a person’s contribution to humanity. It is the brutal denial of this that makes the mass graves that accompany genocide and massacres so appalling to us.

37 years ago Peter Wilson ‘vanished ’ after leaving his home in the Beechmount area of west Belfast. Earlier this month his remains were discovered buried on a beach in the picturesque Glens of Antrim after detectives received an anonymous tip-off. It is believed that Wilson perished at the hands of the IRA, despite being Catholic and having no obvious political affiliation. It was probably more the case that his learning disabilities made Wilson a vulnerable target for a group of thugs wanting to make a bit of noise and not considering the legacy of misery to which they were consigning the Belfast community. Wilson’s case is sadly not unique. When it was set up in 1999, The Commission for the Location of Victims Remain had a list of 16 people who went missing during the Troubles; to date it has recovered the bones of 7, Wilson’s being the most recent find. The discovery of remains offers at least a kind of ‘catharsis’ for relatives. But for others like Anne Morgan the ‘plight is ongoing’; her brother Seamus Ruddy is still on the CLVR’s list. Every year Morgan joins a commemorative walk through Stormont, reminding her countrymen that ‘every effort needs to be made to bring our loved ones home for Christian burial’.

In so many of these cases the effort not to forget so as keep memory alive is combined with a contrary but no less intense impulse to know for sure what happened so as to put the dead to rest. Spain has recently undergone a similar exhumation of its past after half a century of memorial oblivion. Like Northern Ireland, Spain, in striving to move on from its troubled past, had previously urged its people to forget the atrocities, in its case the worst period of Franco’s rule in which thousands of rebels were executed or starved to death in camps. However, the passage of time seems to allow for younger generations unaffected by historically specific political allegiances to begin to ask questions about their father and grandfathers. Spain has launched an equivalent of the CLVR, The Association for the Recovery of History Memory, which has so far discovered 5000 sets of remains. The significance of the establishment of both these government-funded organization should not be underestimated. Rather than this radical re-opening of past wounds being located, as it previous has been, at grassroot levels outside the governmental apparatus and in the left wing media it is being conducted in the respectful garb of officialdom.

However, there are some problems with this current enthusiasm for finding the disappeared that I would like to sketch. It is of course essential that a country face up to the crimes of its past and that collective pain is redressed. The present situation in Rwanda reminds us of the perils of enforcing a ‘pact of oblivion’; often it just serves as a political weapon with which to attack opponents, charging them with ‘stirring up tensions’ and ‘inciting hatred’ for daring to refer to history. One needn’t have to go around digging for bones to sufficiently acknowledge the past. As the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina demonstrates, whilst the Muslim Bosnians may have their independent government they still hold that the country will never more forward into a South Africa truth-and-reconciliation epoch until there is some kind of collective acknowledgement of the Srebrencia massacre (the Serbian parliament unconvincingly continues to deny the charge of genocide).

Yet it is not the case either that unearthing the hidden horrors of one’s national past is necessarily a productive solution to political squabbling. Remains such as Peter Wilson’s carry huge emotional and symbolic capital that can be easily manipulated, shifting public discourse away from the legitimate approaches to truth recovery. The bodies do not so much put tensions to rest as provoke (understandably so) demands for justice and retribution that can very often demobilize agents of conciliation and bolster the causes of extremist groups by asserting cultures of victimhood.

At this point it is essential that I make clear that I am not saying that this is what is happening at the moment in either Spain or Northern Ireland. What I am saying is that all such instances as these contain the latent potential for the exploitation of historical memory and it is understandable why many countries have opted for denial over confrontation. I worry that there is the widespread perception that it is always better to know than not to know.

To better understand what I’m getting at, both here and elsewhere in this blog, I will turn to George Sluizer’s excellent 1988 film The Vanishing. The film begins in fairly standard ‘lady vanishes’ territory. Rex and Saskia, a couple traveling through the South of France, stop off at a busy service station. Saskia goes to the shop to get a drink but doesn’t return to the car. She has disappeared. Rather than turning into the attempt to track down Saskia in the form of a police procedural, the film flashes forward 3 years to show Rex still obsessed with finding out what happened to her. Memory seamlessly intersects with and interrupts Rex’s present efforts to move on. What is at the centre of this mystery is not whodunit but howdunit. This is made plain when Saskia’s abductor, Raymond, tracks down Rex and offers him the opportunity to find out what happened to his lover. Rex has no choice: if he instead turns Raymond over to the police they would have no evidence with which to charge him and Rex would have to live with the ‘eternal uncertainty’ of not knowing what happened to Saskia. However, in order to find out the truth Rex will, in Raymond’s ingeniously perverse logic, have to undergo what Saskia went through.

What is truly fascinating about Sluizer’s film (as well as, for that matter, Tim Krabbe’s novel on which the film is based) is the suggestion that Rex’s obsession with Saskia’s fate is not so different from the sociopathic obsessions that drive Raymond. The latter is one of the more interesting of screen murderers. He is a thoroughly decent family man who has a wry sense of humour and even enjoys a joke or two with Rex in the car on the way to the spot where he abducted Saskia. Indeed, Sluizer presents him in a perversely endearing light, depicting his fumbling and often comically misjudged attempts to lure ‘the right sort of women’ into his car. He explains to Rex that after performing a great act of heroism in rescuing a drowning child he became obsessed with imagining the possibility of committing a great evil. Raymond is unable to counter his urges to visualise this; he has to know what it’ll be like. We are expected to discern in Raymond a dark reflection of Rex’s own willingness to follow Saskia’s footsteps so as to make definite his imagining of what became of her. However, as anyone who has seen The Vanishing through to its stunning and profoundly disturbing end, the reality of this kind of confrontation with the dead is not a symbolic moment of healing, reconciliation or catharsis. After being drugged by Raymond, Rex wakes up to find himself six feet under the ground in a coffin. This is a horrific realization of what it means to really know. Even being reunited with the remains of a loved one, along with sketchy outlines of how and when they died, will not put a decisive end to anxious curiosities. But then, if this is the case, would anyone really want to know, or are the disappeared best left in memories of happier times?    

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