ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
5 March 2008                           

A Precarious Relationship to the Past: Fiskadoro

Figure 1. Aerial photo of the Florida Keys

Inside Fiskadoro’s apocalypses in apocalypses, individual and cultural identities are deconstructed by their precarious relationship to the past.  Identity is flimsy when it is tied to a cultural experience, a collective memory destroyed by war, or the passage of time.  Without memory that connects them to the events of the past, the characters in Fiskadoro cannot interpret their present, but instead have inherited a world of objects and events without meaning for them.  And so some of them long for a past they don’t know, some are paralyzed by their memories, while others exist completely in the present, but possessing memory or shedding it does not save any of them.

Although Grandmother Wright is the last person alive who can explain how the End of the World happened, she is trapped in the memories of her own personal apocalypse.  This Saigon catastrophe marked the end of everything she knew of her world and herself, and so it marked the end of her identity as Marie.  When she and her companions flee Saigon to crash in the middle of the ocean, they are each stripped of their former identities, which are rendered irrelevant outside of their culture and inside the context of survival.  The formerly intimidating Lieutenant sheds the items heavy with cultural meaning, his uniform beret, his rank, and subsequently his name and personality (209).  Stranded in the vast expanse of the ocean, far from any human meaning making, any residual identity hierarchy left from Saigon is destroyed by the leveling force of apocalyptical trauma.

This small, personal apocalypse is so significant to Marie that she never once lapses into memory about the End of the World.  Instead she remembers in full detail how she lost her father, abandoned her mother, fled Saigon, and drifted in and out of consciousness on the ocean before she was rescued.  Drifting in the ocean, she is completely stripped bare of self, memory, and identity, and once rescued, she realizes how arbitrary her survival is when placed in the larger context of existence.  Her identity is completely gone, and she is “saved not because she lasted, not because of anything she did, or determined herself to do, because there was nothing left of her to determine anything…saved because she was saved” (218).  Marie, who is now Grandmother Wright, exists exclusively in memory, and is haunted by a past that traps her.

After Fiskadoro’s ceremony, he becomes the opposite of Marie, shedding his entire former identity, which allows him to escape a past and a future that cause confusion and sorrow.  It also allows him to construct a new identity separate from his family and its tragic past.  This aspect of Fiskadoro is similar to a coming of age story, with Fiskadoro seeking to distance himself from definitions of self inherited from his family, demonstrated by his struggle to avoid an ocean he sees as “hungry” to claim him the way it claimed his father.  However, erasing his memory disconnects him from the past so thoroughly that he is unable to interpret his present in the village.  He has no way to understand his cultural connection to the village, their way of life, or his relationships to his family.

Fiskadoro’s inability to interpret his present because he lacks knowledge of his past is similar to Twicetown’s relationship to the End of the World.  The town exists among artifacts it has no way of understanding, and therefore these objects have no meaning for them. They live among warheads that are now mere objects that tell them little about their cultural history and decorate their homes with automobile parts.  But without some cultural memory to interpret their present, Twicetown seems doomed to be haunted by its past. 

I don’t have any definitive conclusions about Fiskadoro’s themes of memory, the past, the present, and the future, but it seems that no matter where the characters and communities position themselves along the continuum of time they will ultimately not be saved from some kind of destruction.  Everyone is haunted by ghosts, memories, and events of the past.  Fiskadoro observes that the swamp people he stays with are concerned with the future, while Marie is trapped by the memories of her own past, and while Fiskadoro’s existence in the present moment allows him to recognize the ghosts that haunt everyone, it does not save him from the past.