Archive for the ‘Forna, Aminatta (2)’ Category

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

April 29, 2013

Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

Fiction set in the Balkans has a special attraction for me. The region is where West meets East — that certainly carries cultural interest but all too often during the last 1,000 years it has also meant devastating conflict, even genocide. Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina, published in 1945 and the reason he won the Nobel Prize in 1961, remains one of the most impressive novels that I have ever read (sorry, pre-blog so no review here). The bridge itself is the book’s central character; as control of it moves from East to West, or vice versa, life changes dramatically. For those who live there each change means the wait for the next political reversal has already begun.

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.

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The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna

July 6, 2010

ARC courtesy Bloomsbury Press -- click cover for info

With the exception of Ulysses (a planned extended read), there is no doubt that it took me longer to complete The Memory of Love than any other book that I have read this year — a distinction that I think it will continue to hold at year end. Part of that is undoubtedly the novel’s 464 largish pages and small type. Even more of a factor, however, is the nature of author Aminatta Forna’s story and the way that she has chosen to tell it. I found that the book needed to be put down after every 40 or 50 pages (and that is definitely not my normal reading style) and often required a day or two of contemplation before it could be resumed.

The Memory of Love is set in Sierra Leone as the twenty-first century opens. The West African country has been plagued by decades of violent disruption, particularly in the late 1990s, and every character in the book bears the scars (physical, emotional or both) of the atrocities that took place there.

Forna uses three central characters, each of whom anchors a narrative stream — the point of view alters between the three throughout the book, although they do overlap.

Elias Cole is an aging, retired university professor, now on his deathbed in hospital. His disturbed memories extend back to 1969 and the conflict that was taking place even then — his “love” is Saffia, the wife of a fellow professor:

I saw a woman once, the loss of whom I mourned, even before I had spoken a single word to her.

20 January 1969. The faculty wives dinner. We, the bachelors, gathered together at the bottom of the lawn, a patch of untended weeds. On the other side of the grass was the reception line. I was listening, or at least making the appearance of it, to my companion complain about the reallocation of space in the faculty building. He had lost out, which was a shame, no doubt. As he spoke he wiped his face with the napkin that had been wrapped around his glass, leaving flacks of paper all over his forehead. I found myself inclined to stare and so I looked away, towards the arriving guests. She wore a blue gown and, as she descended the stone steps to the lawn, her fingers plucked lightly at the fabric, which clung to her in the heat. I watched her and felt a surge of feeling, that then nameless emotion.

Elias has a need to recount a version of his life (which may or may not be reliable, perhaps deliberately unreliable) and finds a willing set of ears in the second major character, Adrian Lockhart, an English psychologist on temporary secondment to the hospital — an assignment he has chosen mainly because both work and home life in England have left him isolated and confused. The new assignment proves equally as isolating as none of the patients or clients that he is assigned want to see him more than once. He eventually follows one, Agnes, a woman who has the habit of “wandering” every two months or so until someone kindly takes her to the asylum — the locals say she “may be able to cross back and forth between this world and the spirit world.” Adrian eventually makes a diagnosis of “fugue”, a condition first posited in 1887 and for the most part denied by the profession ever since:

A spate of fugues followed the publication of Les Aliens Voyageurs, Adrian reads. Most accounts related to missing servicemen between the First and Second World Wars. The men eventually turned up hundreds of miles away from home. All claimed to suffer memory loss, not to know who they were, or how they had ended up in the place in which they were found. Some were using other names and pursuing new occupations. All appeared to inhabit a state of obscured consciousness from which they eventually emerged with no memory of the weeks, months or even years they had spent away. These were not isolated incidents in the lives of these men, but a constant, a pattern of behavior, of journey, of wanderings of compulsive travelling. The suspicion, on the part of the psychiatrists treating the servicemen, was of malingering. The men were shot as deserters.

That diagnosis does not just to apply to Agnes; indeed, it could be applied to every character in the book. Memory of atrocities witnessed or inflicted cannot be denied, yet it cannot be fully addressed either. At some point, the victim — and everyone is this book is a victim in one way or another — needs to travel to another place, be that in this world or the spiritual world. Some things are so terrible that a collective refusal to remember them is the only way to survive.

Yes, Adrian also finds a “love” as the book progresses, a young woman whom he thinks has replaced his English wife and daughter as the centre of his world. Perhaps.

And finally there is Kai Mansaray, a young indigenous surgeon, who shows up one night at Adrian’s room at the hospital — staff used it as a crash pad before the European arrived and Kai intends to continue doing so. The next morning over breakfast, they discuss Adrian’s presence:

“I’m seconded for a year.”

“So you don’t plan on coming to live here for good. No, well I thought not. If you did, you would be the first immigrant in two hundred years.” Kai Mansaray laughs at his own joke, a raucous ear-splitting sound. “We don’t even have any tourists. Except your sort, that is.”

“My sort?”

The visitor [Kai] takes another bite of bread. “Nothing. What I meant to say to you was, “Welcome!” He raises his coffee cup.

Like Elias and Adrian, Kai has a “love”, or at least the memory of one from his student days. And like the other two as well, he is selectively exploring the memory of his history and his present — and having a difficult time with that selectivity.

Forna does not hesitate to concretely describe the atrocities that require this extensive editing of memory (and that reading is painful), but that is not what makes The Memory of Love a challenging read. Rather it is her commitment to exploring each segment in almost relentless, sometimes apparently irrelevant, detail (take another look at the quotes — they are representative of the entire book), creating a sensory overload in the reader. Rather than an editing of memory, it is a surfeit of what might or might not be important. In no way does that experience directly compare to the atrocities that the characters have experienced, but in its own way it has the same numbing effect — which demands that the book be put down fairly often so the reader can sort out just what is going on.

I was reminded often while reading this novel of the oral story-telling tradition of indigenous authors from Canada (see the review of Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce) and Australia (see Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria). While Forna was born in Scotland, she was raised in West Africa and I have to believe was influenced by an oral story-telling tradition there. That tradition takes an incident and explores it in significant detail as the installment of the evening — with another incident explored in equal detail the next night and so on. While the over-arching story may be bold (in this case, a horrible atrocity that touched every citizen) the segments of the recounting are a deep exploration of details which seem to be incidental at first glance — but are important to the individuals who lived through them. The big story moves at a glacial pace, but then so does life. So it should come as no surprise that a story that was meant to be “told” over a period of days, weeks or even months takes more than a few days to read.

That experience would not be welcomed by every reader and I certainly would not describe The Memory of Love as an enjoyable book. I would, however, characterize it as an immensely compelling one. I knew as I was reading it (and setting it aside) that if I started another book instead of returning to this one, I would probably not return to finish this novel — and that would be a dreadful disservice to an author who has crafted such a painful, but important, story.


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