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.

More articles by:

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

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 28, 2017
Diana Johnstone
Macron’s Mission: Save the European Union From Itself
Jordon Kraemer
The Cultural Anxiety of the White Middle Class
Vijay Prashad
Modi and Trump: When the Titans of Hate Politics Meet
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Efforts to Hide Palestinians From View No Longer Fools Young American Jews
Ron Jacobs
Gonna’ Have to Face It, You’re Addicted to War
Jim Lobe – Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio
Is Trump Blundering Into the Next Middle East War?
Radical Washtenaw
David Ware, Killed By Police: a Vindication
John W. Whitehead
The Age of No Privacy: the Surveillance State Shifts into High Gear
Robert Mejia, Kay Beckermann and Curtis Sullivan
The Racial Politics of the Left’s Political Nostalgia
Tom H. Hastings
Courting Each Other
Winslow Myers
“A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind”
Leonard Peltier
The Struggle is Never for Nothing
Jonathan Latham
Illegal GE Bacteria Detected in an Animal Feed Supplement
Deborah James
State of Play in the WTO: Toward the 11th Ministerial in Argentina
Andrew Stewart
Health Care for All: Why I Occupied Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s Office
Binoy Kampmark
The European Commission, Google and Anti-Competition
Jesse Jackson
A Savage Health Care Bill
Jimmy Centeno
Cats and Meows in L.A.
June 27, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
California Scheming: Democrats Betray Single-Payer Again
Jonathan Cook
Hersh’s New Syria Revelations Buried From View
Edward Hunt
Excessive and Avoidable Harm in Yemen
Howard Lisnoff
The Death of Democracy Both Here and Abroad and All Those Colorful Sneakers
Gary Leupp
Immanuel Kant on Electoral Interference
Kenneth Surin
Theresa May and the Tories are in Freefall
Slavoj Zizek
Get the Left
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia Wants to Reduce Qatar to a Vassal State
Ralph Nader
Driverless Cars: Hype, Hubris and Distractions
Rima Najjar
Palestinians Are Seeking Justice in Jerusalem – Not an Abusive Life-Long Mate
Norman Solomon
Is ‘Russiagate’ Collapsing as a Political Strategy?
Binoy Kampmark
In the Twitter Building: Tech Incubators and Altering Perceptions
Dean Baker
Uber’s Repudiation is the Moment for the U.S. to Finally Start Regulating the So-called Sharing Economy
Rob Seimetz
What I Saw From The Law
George Wuerthner
The Causes of Forest Fires: Climate vs. Logging
June 26, 2017
William Hawes – Jason Holland
Lies That Capitalists Tell Us
Chairman Brandon Sazue
Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies
Patrick Cockburn
Grenfell Tower: the Tragic Price of the Rolled-Back Stat
Joseph Mangano
Tritium: Toxic Tip of the Nuclear Iceberg
Ray McGovern
Hersh’s Big Scoop: Bad Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack
Roy Eidelson
Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook
Geoff Beckman
Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff
Matthew Stevenson
Travels Around Trump’s America
David Macaray
Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret
Colin Todhunter
Future Shock: Imagining India
Yoav Litvin
Animals at the Roger Waters Concert
Binoy Kampmark
Pride in San Francisco
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail