ON THE FORGIVENESS PROJECT
I found The Forgiveness Project, the 1971 short story collection by Canadian author Lydia Lorenz, in a box of my father’s things that the owner of the hotel next to the Maternity Hospital in Luanda kept safe throughout the Ultramar and subsequent civil wars that rocked Angola for more than forty years. In the sixties and seventies, my father was a second-string war correspondent assigned to Portuguese Africa. As a colonial power, Portugal was the first to enter the continent and the last to flee it. My father is still there, buried underneath a parking lot behind the Cuca beverage headquarters on Largo do Kinaxixi.
I don’t know what I wanted to find in Luanda. Certainly not an obscure book of short stories. The hotel owner, an old woman who must have been a beauty in my father’s day, showed me his room, said she found him dead in bed, the book open on his chest. I flipped through the pages, hoping that a note in the margins might give me a sense of who he was. The hotel owner shuffled towards me. She held a hand out, as if she wanted the book back, and though it’s not the kind of thing I was brought up to do, I pushed her. She fell, and I heard a bone crack. That was 2003. I’d given up writing my novel for a career in D.C., editing the government’s annual report on morbidity. I couldn’t see people without imagining what would end them. For her, I feared pneumonia, a complication of hip fractures. I offered her a hand up. She wouldn’t take it.
It was Derrida who proposed that the unforgivable was “in truth, the only thing to forgive.” Lorenz knew a thing or two about the unforgivable. Near the end of WWII, her father was killed by friendly American fire. Her mother, forced to take a job as a waitress, was strangled by a teen from Buffalo who admitted at his sentencing that he’d done it for the tips in her pockets. In the late 50’s, when he wrote to Lorenz begging for forgiveness, she refused, returning his letter with a note instructing him to ball it up and choke to death on it. He did.
I can’t imagine how my father came across a copy of The Forgiveness Project in Luanda. The book was poorly received. In a review of it, the New York literary critic G. Levitt King claimed that the world didn’t have room for another female short story writer from the Great White North. “We’ve met our quota with Munro,” he quipped, calling Lorenz’s work “mastadonic and senselessly violent.” King was right. The first three stories of the 407-page collection feature a letter bomb opened by the secretary of the intended recipient who loses her hands and her job in the aftermath of the explosion; a baby strangled by a drug addict who mistakes it for a dishrag in need of wringing out; and a French wife in 1942, so angry at her Jewish husband’s infidelity that she turns him over to the police. Only the final story, a mere paragraph long, what we call a short-short these days, but what Martha Foley in her Foreword to the Best American Short Stories that year classified as a vignette, deals with the project of forgiveness. It’s a final sketch of the Jewish husband, who, having miraculously survived Auschwitz, boards a train for Paris, unsure of whether he will murder or reclaim his wife when he finds her. Judging from the condition of the page, it doesn’t look like my father got to it.
He sent me ten letters from Luanda, one on each of my birthdays, his sentences unapologetically sparse. Shadowing General Azevedo. He’s afraid of his own troops. Hundreds slaughtered along the Bengo. South Africa worries they’re next. When, in the third grade, I shared his letters with my classmates, my teacher asked my mother to take them away from me. The body counts were upsetting the kids. General Azevedo wasn’t any kind of role model.
In 1972, on her way to a book signing in downtown Atlanta (a deadly city for both pedestrians and authors), Lydia Lorenz was struck by a distracted driver. In an interview published posthumously in a local newspaper, she responded to criticism of the violence in her work. “I should have written about love,” she said, “but I don’t know how.