FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Surviving War in Croatia

by CHARLES R. LARSON

As I wrote in my review of Aminatta Forna’s previous novel, The Memory of Love (2010), it’s difficult to write convincingly about love during a time of war—or, more accurately, the memory of that love after the carnage has ended.  Forna certainly knows about such horrors.  Her father was murdered during the civil war in Sierra Leone, where she spent part of her time as a child.  The war became the backdrop to The Memory of Love, a brilliant novel that must have been every bit as wrenching to write as it is to read.  And again, as if war has become a subject she cannot escape, her newest novel, The Hired Man, explores many of the same themes of the earlier work though the setting this time is during and after the Yugoslav civil war.   Specifically, she narrates incidents sixteen years later in a town called Gost, which ironically means “guest,” though I certainly wouldn’t call the place very welcoming.

It takes many pages before we encounter actual events set during that the war, though we known from the main character, a man named Duro, a handyman, that Gost’s past put almost everyone in a bad light.  Eventually, he will tell us, “We were petty thieves, smugglers and black-marketeers.  We kept illicit stills, we hunted out of season because we could.  We hated to pay tax, we did deals on the side and took cash whenever we could; we were the kind of people governments don’t like: bullet-headed, obstinate, as hard to control as it is to herd cats.  It turned out we were the sort of people who would steal from the homes of those who had fled, which we did, without shame.”

I wouldn’t put Duro in that category.  He’s an honorable man, who fled the village’s meanness and mendacity years ago after a brief love affair with a girl he obviously loved.  But she was under age and others could not tolerate what had happened after matters of ethnicity and religion entered the fray.  But by the worst part of the civil war, Duro has returned to Gost, doing his best to defend the village, though that meant his own share of hiredmankilling.  Observing his father and his sister being shot—his father dying immediately  and his sister shaking for several hours before her end—he puts what has happened into the past the only way he knows in order that he can survive: “Daniela took five hours to go, her whole body shook in one death rattle.  The expression on her face was as if she had done something wrong, like an animal caught in a trap, crying without making any sound.  I could tell you I think about all of that, but I don’t.  I think about the sun and the dawn which is almost over.” But then, he too, kills, wondering why he has waited so long.

You would think that Duro might leave Gost a second time, get away from the environment where so many things went wrong for him.  But—and here is where the story gets complex—he stays, mostly as a living reminder to those who did truly vile things during the massacres, in order to keep them worrying that some day their crimes will be exposed.  That almost happens because one summer (and this is how the novel begins) an English woman and her two teenage children arrive in Gost.  They’ve bought “the blue house,” near his own, and intend to renovate it.  As it happens, he’s got the skills that are necessary to make the repairs and Laura, the woman, hires him on the spot.  Besides, with so little work around, Duro needs the job.

Over a period of slightly more than a month as he makes the renovations for the woman, he begins telling us about things that happened to him in the past and that means, of course, what happened in Gost.  “Our story doesn’t show us in a very good light,” pops out fairly early during his remarks.  As the renovations take place, someone in the community starts undermining his work, damaging things that have already been fixed up.  These acts are obviously unsettling for Laura and her children, but Duro doesn’t want them to be frightened, although maybe they should be.  Moreover, the details of his relationship with Anka are revealed, and it’s obvious that Duro has never been able to forget about their love.

In a final crescendo close to the time when Laura and her children are set to return to England, the worst of those details are revealed, some of them described by Duro to Grace, Laura’s daughter, because she’s the realist of the three of them, perhaps most likely to understand. As readers we begin to understand more fully the ethnic strife that he had previously only spoken to himself—a reiteration of the first quotation above: “Yes, we are petty thieves, smugglers, black-marketeers, we are makers of moonshine and tax dodgers, we fiddle the books of our businesses and peddle porn, and when our neighbors’ houses are empty we steal from them.  One thing we are not is killers.” So it’s also  catharsis for Duro, because he’s held those details too close for sixteen years, lied to himself.

If The Hired Hand lacks some of the emotional power of The Memory of Love, this is only because of the distance of the material.  The earlier novel gave the impression of being pulled from Forna’s gut; the most recent one, though thoroughly researched, often seems distanced in its plotting (its revelation of information) holding facts back a little too long before revealing the horror.  Still, Forna has walked the walk, lived close to the darkness she reveals–darkness in situations that call for truth rather than another layer of dust and disguise.

Aminatta Forna: The Hired Man

Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pp., $24

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
Leslie Scott
Trump in the Middle East: New Ideas, Old Politics
George Wuerthner
Environmental Groups as Climate Deniers
Pauline Murphy
The Irish Dead: Fighting Fascism in Spain, 1937
Brian Trautman
Veterans on the March
Eric Sommer
Trumps Attack on Social Spending Escalates Long-term Massive Robbery of American Work
Binoy Kampmark
Twenty-Seven Hours: Donald Trump in Israel
Christian Hillegas
Trump’s Islamophobia: the Persistence of Orientalism in Western Rhetoric and Media
Michael J. Sainato
Russiagate: Clintonites Spread the Weiner Conspiracy
Walter Clemens
What the President Could Learn from Our Shih-Tzu Eddie
May 24, 2017
Paul Street
Beyond Neoliberal Identity Politics
Daniel Read
Powder Keg: Manchester Terror Attack Could Lead to Yet Another Resurgence in Nationalist Hate
Robert Fisk
When Peace is a Commodity: Trump in the Middle East
Kenneth Surin
The UK’s Epochal Election
Jeff Berg
Lessons From a Modern Greek Tragedy
Steve Cooper
A Concrete Agenda for Progressives
Michael McKinley
Australia-as-Concierge: the Need for a Change of Occupation
William Hawes
Where Are Your Minds? An Open Letter to Thomas de Maiziere and the CDU
Steve Early
“Corporate Free” Candidates Move Up
Fariborz Saremi
Presidential Elections in Iran and the Outcomes
Dan Bacher
The Dark Heart of California’s Water Politics
Alessandra Bajec
Never Ending Injustice for Pinar Selek
Rob Seimetz
Death By Demigod
Jesse Jackson
Venezuela Needs Helping Hand, Not a Hammer Blow 
Binoy Kampmark
Return to Realpolitik: Trump in Saudi Arabia
Vern Loomis
The NRA: the Dragon in Our Midst
May 23, 2017
John Wight
Manchester Attacks: What Price Hypocrisy?
Patrick Cockburn
A Gathering of Autocrats: Trump Puts US on Sunni Muslim Side of Bitter Sectarian War with Shias
Shamus Cooke
Can Trump Salvage His Presidency in Syria’s War?
Thomas S. Harrington
“Risk”: a Sad Comedown for Laura Poitras
Josh White
Towards the Corbyn Doctrine
Mike Whitney
Rosenstein and Mueller: the Regime Change Tag-Team
Jan Oberg
Trump in Riyadh: an Arab NATO Against Syria and Iran
Susan Babbitt
The Most Dangerous Spy You’ve Never Heard Of: Ana Belén Montes
Rannie Amiri
Al-Awamiya: City of Resistance
Dimitris Konstantakopoulos
The European Left and the Greek Tragedy
Laura Leigh
This Land is Your Land, Except If You’re a Wild Horse Advocate
Hervé Kempf
Macron, Old World President
Michael J. Sainato
Devos Takes Out Her Hatchet
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail