And while I have never been to the area, I’ll confess to some personal ties. Sarajevo was host to the 1984 Winter Olympic Games — since my hometown of Calgary was hosting the 1988 version, we paid even more attention than usual. That meant it was even more heart-breaking to witness the pointless and ruthless destruction of Sarajevo in the latest Balkan conflict only a few years later. On the upbeat side, Mrs. KfC is a rambler and some years after peace returned she and her friends went trekking in Croatia in 2008 — she found it incredibly beautiful and would return in a heartbeat.
All of which left me looking forward to Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man with much interest. The present time of the novel is 2007, virtually the same as Mrs. KfC’s visit, and a period of “peace” in the troubled area. It is set in the town of Gost (fictional, as far as I can tell), some miles inland from the sea, but a crossroads for both north-south and east-west routes, so a conflict site when the inevitable troubles do flare up. Forna foreshadows all of that in her opening paragraphs:
At the time of writing I am forty-six years old. My name is Duro Kolak.
Laura came to Gost in the last week of July. I was the first to see her the morning she drove into town. From the hillside you have a view of the road, one of the three that lead into town: the first comes direct from the north, the second and third from the south-east and the south-west respectively. The car was on the road that comes from the south-west, from the coast. An early sun had burned off most of the mist and on a day like this the deer might be encouraged to leave the woods and come down the hill, so I’d turned back to fetch my rifle even though it was not the season to hunt.
Duro has called Gost home for all of his life — even when he was living on the coast, it was still “home”. Later on in the narrative, he will tell Laura that the meaning of “gost” lies somewhere between “visitor” and “guest”. Laura is English and this is her first visit to the “blue” house, next door to Duro’s. Her husband has bought the place which she has never seen as a summer retreat for the family (property on the coast has already soared in value now that peace is here but inland places are a bargain) and she has arrived with her teenage son and daughter to begin the process of bringing it back up to snuff. In the Balkans, not all “occupations” start with the military.
Having observed the arrival of newcomers, Duro immediately heads into town for a coffee at the Zodijak, the bar that is the social media center of Gost, to discover what is up. If Laura and children represent the beginning of the external plot of The Hired Man, the introduction to the Zodijak supplies us with the internal one:
Outside the Zodijak the chairs and tables were already out. I nodded at a couple of the guys — one of them worked in the garage next door. Fabjan had hired a new girl for the summer, who smiled at all the customers, which here is as disconcerting as if she walked through the streets singing. She told me Fabjan was on his way in. I ordered a coffee. Someone else called for a Karlovačko. We sat in silence and watched people passing in the street.
It was close to nine by the time Fabjan showed up. Fabjan drives a custom-sprayed BMW, meaning nobody else has one in the same colour and so he doesn’t need to bother to lock it. He was wearing a new suede jacket, something like the colour of butter, and freshly laundered jeans, faded and tight around the balls. Fabjan’s put on a few kilos over the years and the waistband of his jeans cut into his gut. He wore a year-round tan and the beginning of jowls.
The crossroads of conflict, like Gost, always have their exploitative survivors who somehow figure out who is currently on top and, in the short term, profitably align themselves with them. That’s Fabjan — whatever group might be currently pulling the strings in Gost, they are drinking at the Zodijak and Fabjan is quick to serve (and equally quick to switch sides when the inevitable tides turn).
Duro soon introduces himself to his neighbor and equally quickly becomes “the hired man” of the title — he is a freelance builder, but he also has known the blue house all his life. When Laura’s 15-year-daughter Grace discovers a mosaic hidden beneath the exterior stucco of the house and an even more interesting one in a filled-in pool in the yard, Duro knows just where to go to locate the missing tiles for the restoration project that she undertakes.
Inevitably, he becomes attracted to Laura, but, to Forna’s credit, not in the way that you might think. It may have been thirty years ago, but Duro’s first love, Anka, lived in the blue house. It was that love that introduced him to the harsh world of Croatian politics and he has paid for it ever since. Just as those ruling the Balkans regularly change, the residents of the blue house also change — but that does not mean that the house does not carry the history of its previous occupants with it. And the arrival of an attractive new owner awakens Duro’s memories; the wounds incurred then have left scars that fester continuously in the present.
Forna chooses to tell her story in the form of Duro’s diary, begun the day Laura and children arrived. While that device stretches reality, it is a handy one because it allows the novel to judiciously mix the present with the past. It gives nothing away to say that the past becomes ever more prominent as the book progresses. The occupiers of towns like Gost may change, but people like Duro, Fabjan and others stay — and the conflicts that are set up with the allegiances they choose under occupation remain long after the occupiers have left.
I’ll admit that a concern that I had when I started The Hired Man was the prospect of “appropriation of Balkan voice” or something like that. Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow, raised in Sierra Leone and Britain and spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia. That certainly establishes personal experience in living in areas characterized by conflict, but raises the question of whether Croatia might be a site of convenience more than anything else.
That concern was soon dispelled — Forna’s interest is not in choosing a side (or sides) or even an insider’s look at Croatia’s violent history, but rather portraying what happens to the people who live inside that kind of volatile political world. Her last novel, The Memory of Love explored some similar themes, but it was set in Sierra Leone, much more familiar turf for the author and that showed to both advantage and disadvantage.
From this reader’s perspective, locating this latest novel in an area that she had to “learn” rather than relying on personal past experience enabled the writer to concentrate even more on how these kinds of devastating conflict affect those who are ordinary residents. Yes, she does the Balkans well — even more impressive is the way that she explores the dimensions and impacts of violent, irrational conflict on the people who have to live through it and still live with the consequences afterwards. I liked The Memory of Love a lot, but this novel soars to a much higher level — Duro, Laura and many of the other characters come to life in a way that few authors manage to achieve. It is as good a “human” novel set in the Balkan area of conflict as The Bridge on the Drina is an “historical” one.