A Portrait of Life After War
In The Hired Man, Scottish-born Aminatta Forna reveals the pains of readjustment behind Croatia’s seeming summer idyll
You have heard about the terrible war in ex- Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999.
You have read about it, maybe tried to understand it.
You heard sad stories and saw shocking pictures.
Maybe you’ve seen movies about it – like Angelina Jolie’s 2011 film In the Land of Blood and Honey that takes on the tensions and danger of cross-cultural love in Bosnia.
But have you ever asked yourself what has happened since?
How do people who have survived those ghastly times live with their memories and, even more interestingly, how does anyone live next door to the people who caused all that suffering?
These are the questions Aminatta Forna asks in The Hired Man.
The book is set in Gost, a small fictional town in the part of Croatia where in 1989, the Serbian minority pronounced its own republic, triggering unrest, and soon war.
Laura, a British woman, buys a house and spends a summer there with her two children and a hired man Duro, hoping to bring the house back to life.
Duro is a local and a friend of the previous owners. He is a man of few words but many practical skills – including hunting.
The arrival of the unexperienced foreign family will gradually unsettle Gost’s inhabitants, bringing back painful memories and feelings long suppressed.
Just as the war in Croatia crept in gradually, the novel will take you by the hand and lead you out of naiveté and slowly, step by step, into a nearly suffocating darkness and final crescendo.
The book may at moments seem slow, but bear with it – the ending is so powerful, it will make you glad you did.
From inside a cage
All Forna’s work deals with civil conflict: "Why does a country implode?" she wonders.
But a writer’s job is to pose questions, and she doesn’t search for answers.
As in her award winning The Memory of Love (2011), or her 2002 memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water, dealing with the conflict in Sierra Leone in which her father, a doctor and political dissident, was hanged, there are no solutions.
On the contrary – the deeper she digs into human existence, the more questions arise.
What would it be like to live among the effects of a war in a country where you were a foreigner, "where you can’t read the signs"?
This question initially took her to Argentina as a possible setting. It ended in Croatia.
The Hired Man is powerful in many ways: its topic, characters, Forna’s gripping prose. But its strongest quality is a unique atmosphere, which will stick with you long after.
The novel is claustrophobic, even when it takes you outside, into the woods, on a swim or a hunt.
It’s like looking at the world from inside a cage – of horrors experienced, of not being able to escape one’s past or one’s future, of the inescapable presence of one’s worst enemies.
When asked why he doesn’t leave, Duro answers:
"Why should I? And anyway where would I go? When you’ve seen it and you know nothing is going to change that, you get used to it, like an aftertaste of something rotten.You get used to it, because you have to."
Other characters are also memorable: Laura, the wonderfully naive British woman, is a sweet, bored housewife who dreams of repeating her mother’s success with refurbishing and selling houses.
She is here to find an idyll:
"Laura wanted cheese and cured meats, olives soaked in oil and vine tomatoes, like in Italy. Instead she found imitation leather jackets, mobile-phone covers and pickled vegetables."
She is oblivious, just as the world was back then, not understanding what the war was about: Just who were the Serbs and Croats and why did they want to kill each other when they speak the same language and live in the same country?
What makes Laura especially interesting is the ambiguity of her blindness – is it real or willful? How much does she actually choose not to see?
Even her children are less naive.
The book’s local Croats are wonderfully real.
A strong contrast to Laura, they are everything but naive.
These people function in a multi-ethnic environment, they have experienced the transition from communism to capitalism, managed through the worst financial shortages, and survived a war.
Duro’s voice is at times staggeringly Croatian.
He is a tough man who accepts his destiny and survives doing hard physical work – practical, loyal, brutal, private – but at the same time surprisingly sensible.
He is a true Croat: a powerful mix of a Slavic and Mediterranean soul.
The decision not to distinguish clearly between Croats and Serbs makes Forna’s novel especially interesting, and even a Croatian reader will need some time to understand what is going on and who is who.
Someone who has experienced the war might feel irritated by her painting one side as brutal killers while not describing the horrors of the other.
But this also allows for an interesting mystery and a strong plot.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who was who. Avoiding micro-politics, Forna is able to concentrate on her characters, fallible human beings to whom anything can happen.
Anywhere in the world, someone may manage to convince us there are enemies out there – and if we don’t kill them, they will kill us.
Too many people have killed and been killed on false assumptions and what is left is wonderfully described: a suffocating cage of witnessed horrors, lingering spirits unable to move on.
The Hired Man Aminatta Forna Atlantic Monthly Press (2013) pp. 293