Last year, I went on a pilgrimage to Spain, visiting five cities: Madrid, Toledo, Avila, León, and Santiago de Compostela. It was the last of three amazing journeys I took; on the others, I visited Rome and Jerusalem. But Spain was special to me.
Recently, I sat reading Nick Bantock’s book, The Forgetting Room. It is about a man named Armon Hurt(ago) who returns to Rhonda, Spain after the death of his grandfather, a painter. Through the grieving process, Armon reconnects with his own creativity and desire to paint. He paints a triptych that begins as a watercolor of a high bridge spanning a gorge. He meets a beautiful woman whose face is scarred, and somewhere deep inside his heart, he understands that as he heals from his previous marriage and divorce, this woman will be important to him.
Nick Bantock does a beautiful job in the book of evoking Spain’s history in the twentieth century, realistically referencing what life was like under the dictator, Franco (without ever naming him), alluding to the painter Picasso and quoting the poet Lorca. At the center of the magical realism of the story is a mystery invoked by my favorite words in the book, Nick Bantock’s own, contained in a letter Armon finds: “Please follow these instructions with great care in order to rebuild a lost memory.”
Many things about this story interest me: the names of Armon’s grandparents, Rafael (which means “God is my healer”) and Marianne (which means “bitter grace”) … the names of Rafael’s best friends, Paolo and Francesca (surely an allusion to the lovers in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno) … and perhaps most importantly, the name of the main character. His last name was shortened and Anglicized by his father from Hurtago to Hurt, but at the end of the story, Armon owns his Spanish heritage and reclaims his grandfather’s name.
Equally significant is his first name, Armon, which in Hebrew means “high place.” For The Forgetting Room is a story about what happened on the bridge over the gorge — the high place that spans, in some sense, eternity — where Armon’s grandfather nearly died and where, through the possibilities of time twisted back on itself, Armon goes to save his life. That Armon is able to rebuild this memory in his soul helps reconcile him to his grandfather’s loss in old age.
Reading the book is like going on a pilgrimage of the heart, silently following in the footsteps of Armon Hurtago. If you go on it, you could be changed like he is. You might feel for yourself the extraordinary feelings that he feels when he is released from the prison of being one way when he was meant to become a greater man.
“I felt the wind.
I wanted to eat the sky, dance a jig, marry the world.
I could feel the earth prickling through the soles of my feet.”
The Forgetting Room