Surviving War in Croatia


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.

Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?
Karl Grossman
The Politics of Lyme Disease
Barry Lando
Syria: Obama’s Bay of Pigs?
Andre Vltchek
Southeast Asia “Forgets” About Western Terror
Jose Martinez
American Violence: Umpqua is “Routine”?
Vijay Prashad
Russian Gambit, Syrian Dilemma
Sam Smith
Why the Democrats are in Such a Mess
Uri Avnery
Nasser and Me
Andrew Levine
The Saints March In: The Donald and the Pope
Arun Gupta
The Refugee Crisis in America
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Lara Santoro
Terror as Method: a Journalist’s Search for Truth in Rwanda
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Elections and Verbal Vomit
Dan Glazebrook
Refugees Don’t Cause Fascism, Mr. Timmermann – You Do
Victor Grossman
Blood Moon Over Germany
Patrick Bond
Can World’s Worst Case of Inequality be Fixed by Pikettian Posturing?
Pete Dolack
Earning a Profit from Global Warming
B. R. Gowani
Was Gandhi Averse to Climax? A Psycho-Sexual Assessment of the Mahatma
Tom H. Hastings
Another Mass Murder
Anne Petermann
Activists Arrested at ArborGen GE Trees World Headquarters
Ben Debney
Zombies on a Runaway Train
Franklin Lamb
Confronting ‘Looting to Order’ and ‘Cultural Racketeering’ in Syria
Carl Finamore
Coming to San Francisco? Cra$h at My Pad
Ron Jacobs
Standing Naked: Bob Dylan and Jesus
Missy Comley Beattie
What Might Does To Right
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi Jayanti, Gandhi’s Dream
Raouf Halaby
A Week of Juxtapositions
Louis Proyect
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran
Christopher Washburn
Skeptik’s Lexicon
Charles R. Larson
Indonesia: Robbed, Raped, Abused
David Yearsley
Death Songs