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

Ghosts, Hauntings, and the Past in Fiskadoro

Figure 1. Souls in Dante's Inferno

“[B]ut you don’t have the memories to make you crazy. It isn’t sleeping under the moon that makes a crazy person. It’s waking up and remembering the past and thinking it’s real,” Mr. Cheung explains to Fiskadoro (217). In Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson relates the concept of memory to the concept of the soul, of ghosts, and of haunting; the memory lives in the past and the present, and exists in everything but the future. In the novel’s post-apocalyptic world, the characters are constantly concerned with remembering or forgetting, keeping the past alive or abandoning it to try and reach a future that does not seem to exist. They are surrounded by ghosts which they do or do not choose to see; they are haunted either by souls that remember their former lives, or their own memories of the dead. Even the people themselves, still living in a world that has ended, are compared to ghosts. This image illustrates how people and events continue to survive in memory long after they have passed; although the apocalypse has occurred, the world cannot truly end until no one is left who remembers.

Johnson suggests that, through Fiskadoro and Mr. Cheung’s ideas that souls must have memory and only exist because of that memory, the essential nature of things exists only as they are experienced. Without the memory, the soul seems to be “erased.” Furthermore, remembering an occurrence brings it into existence; in remembering his father’s death, Fiskadoro “made it true again—again for the first time” (61). When the Marathon Society reads about Nagasaki and the atomic bomb, many of the listeners fear that speaking about it will bring another bomb and the final end of the world. They believe remembering the atomic bomb brings the destructive storm and worry that what they remember in the past will become real if they stop denying it—the title of the book is not simply Nagasaki: The Atomic Bomb, but is instead Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb. Mr. Cheung appears to have the most realistic memory of Nagasaki for, although he was not present, while listening he relives the experience that has never actually happened to him. It is not his memory, but because he remembers it, for him it exists and becomes real; the “soul” of Nagasaki and the atomic bomb survives.

Ghosts exist not only in the past, but memory haunts the characters of Fiskadoro even in their present. Fiskadoro worries that his thoughts, if he creates too vivid an imagined scene, may take on a “ghost-life” of their own right at that moment. He creates memory, and so his soul and identity, with each moment, and cannot escape them without erasing himself. When he dwells among the blacks in the swamp who have preformed the ceremony that results in the loss of their memory, Fiskadoro sees himself as a ghost among them. Even though he exists and lives in the present, he is the only one to possess his full memory of himself, and so he takes on the role of the ghost. Because of this, he is also the only one to recognize the ghosts in the midst of the swamps. Fiskadoro claims the area is saturated with the memory of people who have died, yet the blacks do not rely on these ghosts or their memories as they continue their lives. Cassius Clay Sugar Ray goes beyond the concept of ghosts as the memory of people and ideas and sees them even in the physical aspects of the present. He notices ghosts in ocean fog, water, and rain: the remnants of the world that ended, but continues to exist.

When Fiskadoro loses his memory, and so loses all knowledge of himself and appears to even lose his soul, it mirrors the apocalyptic end of the world. He describes the process that took his memory as a “death-ceremony”; unlike the ghosts he sees who have died and remain because they remember, Fiskadoro has truly “died” because he has ceased to exist. However, when he “wakes” from the dream that encompasses his time in the swamps, Fiskadoro is able to be revived in the waking and living world. Although he does not return completely and cannot remember his past, he does regain his ability to create memories. In the meantime, he exists because the others in the Army—his family, his neighbors, Mr. Cheung—all remember Fiskadoro and keep his “ghost,” their own memories of his history, alive and real. As the world continues to exist even after the apocalypse because people create it and keep it real through their memories, Fiskadoro’s soul is not destroyed despite his loss of memory because people continue to keep his memory and soul alive in his place.