The Hired Man
Atlantic Monthly Press
Grove Atlantic Inc.
154 West 14th Street, 12th Floor
New York City, NY 10011
2013, 304 pp., $28.95, ISBN: 978.0.8021.2191.2
Aminatta Forna is making quite a name for herself as a chronicler of the aftermath of war. Her 2002 memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water told the story of her Sierra Leonean father’s execution on trumped-up treason charges by the country’s dictator. Her two previous novels, Ancestor Stones and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner The Memory of Love, both explored conflicts in Sierra Leone, one recent and one more distant.
Her latest, The Hired Man, represents a change in location but not in theme. The territory this time is the Croatian town of Gost, whose inhabitants are grappling with the effects of a 1990s wartime massacre. They respond in different ways to the dilemma facing every victim of trauma: to remember, or to attempt to forget?
The ‘hired man’ himself, Duro, chooses to stay in Gost and bear witness to what happened. His sister and mother try to forget entirely by moving to New Zealand. Others occupy a peculiar middle ground, refusing to move away, but also refusing to be entirely honest about what occurred, and the parts they all played.
Often it’s outsiders who expose secrets and unspoken agreements about burying the past. In this case, it’s an English family, Laura and her teenage children Matthew and Grace, who unwittingly trigger the release of uncomfortable memories. They buy a local house and hire Duro to help renovate it, unaware that the real owner has been missing since the war, and that the person who sold them the house had a hand in her disappearance.
For much of the book, these secrets are even kept from the reader. The Hired Man’s first half meanders along pleasantly, with Duro fixing Laura’s roof, taking the family out to a swimming hole in the hills, slowly becoming friends with Laura, and winning over her taciturn teenage kids. In between, Duro indulges in nostalgic reminiscences of hunting deer with his childhood friends, Krešimir and Anka Pavić.
It’s all quite slow moving, but peppered through the narrative are little glimpses of something much darker beneath the surface. Duro’s renovation of Laura’s house provokes angry responses from Krešimir and his friend Fabjan. When Laura wonders why there’s only one bakery in town, Duro acknowledges, “Someone could have made money opening a new one, Laura was right. In all the years that passed since the family went away, nobody ever did. Not Fabjan: too much even for him.”
It’s a beautifully light touch, those last five words provoking so many questions in the reader’s mind that Forna refuses to answer, at least initially. It’s a similar story with Gost’s Orthodox church. Grace wants to visit, but Duro tells her it has been closed for a long time. There are the untilled fields around town that Laura can’t believe have been left for wild flowers to take over. Duro responds by carefully showing her which ones she can walk in and which ones she should avoid, blaming difficult owners but immediately revealing to the reader that the truth lies somewhere else: “I guessed that Laura was one of those people who preferred the music of a lie to the discordance of truth.”
As the hints pile up, it becomes clear that darkness will soon be unleashed. Both in the present-day narrative and in Duro’s reminiscences, tension slowly builds, so there’s a sense of relief when the darkness suddenly spills over both past and present narratives at once. The baker and his family disappeared in the war because the word they used for bread was the Serb hleb instead of the Croat kruh. The Orthodox church closed because its members—Serbs again—were placed on a list and arrested. The fields are empty because of landmines. Laura’s house was once Anka’s, until she and her Serb husband were arrested by Fabjan, with some help from her vindictive brother, Krešimir.
In all of this, the words “Serb” and “Croat” are never used. It’s a clever device, distancing readers from the preconceptions based on news reports and TV documentaries about the breakup of Yugoslavia. Readers are forced to look at the situation with fresh eyes, seeing not a Serb but a baker who made excellent devrek and meat pies and who supervised karate practice at the local sports club.
This is one of the strengths of the book: the way that it forces readers to discard learned truths and see a familiar conflict in a new way. War is a time when politicians and military leaders try harder than ever to obscure the reality of human experience and clothe their actions in generalities, like ‘fighting tyranny,’ ‘making sacrifices,’ and ‘protecting national security.’ If novels have a ‘job’ at all, it’s to excavate the real, individual human experiences that lie beneath the language of war. It’s what Heller did in Catch 22, Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five, Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and it’s a job that still needs doing, perhaps more than ever, since the above examples were taken from Obama’s recent speech urging a military strike on Syria. In an age of Predator Drones and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems, the human impact of war can be distanced and sanitized, morality outsourced to a machine.
The Hired Man willingly and effectively works to dig beneath accepted truths. It explains almost nothing about the background or politics or military strategy of the Yugoslav Wars. But by discarding facts, it gains insight.
The detailed description of the house renovations acts as an extended metaphor for the way the past has been covered up and then rediscovered. Laura and Grace unearth a mosaic from underneath white plaster and restore a fountain in the courtyard. Emphasis on renovation could be interpreted as a heavy-handed metaphor, but Forna brings it off thanks to the trick of embedding it among a wealth of other detail on the work Duro is doing: tiling the roof, installing an electric pump on the well, painting the windows, and restoring the old car in one of the outbuildings.
In the town, as with the mosaic, it’s really Duro who is doing the unearthing, using the English family as his unsuspecting tools. It’s Duro who can’t leave the past alone, who must keep picking at the scab. It’s Duro who confronts Krešimir and the rest of the people in Gost with the truths they’d prefer to keep hidden:
I again saw Krešimir, only this time he wasn’t walking past on the other side of the road carrying his shopping home, this time he was storming across the road towards me. It gave me a thrill to see him so angry; my heart quickened, because Krešimir in a rage is capable of anything. I curled my fingers around my glass of wine.
The “thrill” is telling: Duro only seems to come alive when he’s in conflict with somebody. He needs to excavate the past just as much as Krešimir and the others need to leave it buried.
In an interview with The Times Live in 2011, Forna said, “Creative writing students are often told: ‘Write about what you know.’ I prefer: ‘Write about what you want to understand.’” This perhaps explains her decision to tackle such a complex topic and a completely different culture. She lists in her acknowledgements an impressive array of writers, reporters and war survivors from the region whom she consulted, interviewed or asked to read the manuscript. The result is a book that rings true, that’s packed with details on everything from which song was playing on the radio in 1990 (“Hajde Da Ludujemo”) to the best month for picking rujnika mushrooms in the pine forest. Cultural authenticity can be bought, after all; the price to be paid is in hours spent in libraries and archives and in conversation with the people who really know.
One advantage of Forna’s outsider status is that she has no axe to grind. Everyone in the book is afforded equal treatment; even those who betray their neighbours and steal their property are presented not as villains, but as shabby opportunists. Like Eichmann as seen by Hannah Arendt, they are banal, and their banality makes them easy to understand.
If there is a particular group that’s targeted in The Hired Man, it’s rich foreigners like Laura who fan out across the globe in search of sun and cheap property, viewing their surroundings as nothing more than an exotic backdrop for their own lives. Forna allows herself a few digs at Laura, describing her disappointment at finding in the local market not the vine-ripened tomatoes and succulent olives she’d expected, but “imitation leather jackets, mobile-phone covers and pickled vegetables.” But even Laura and her somewhat brattish children are treated fairly, and never become mere figures of fun.
The continuity with Forna’s previous books is not only in the theme of conflict, but also in the way that the story of the war itself is told through the lens of a later period. The question provoked by her books is not, “How could people do such terrible things?” but, “How do people live with each other, and with themselves, in the long years after the fighting has ended?”
It’s a question explored by another recent release: Hanna Krall’s Polish bestseller, Chasing the King of Hearts, now translated into English for the first time and published in the UK by Peirene Press. The story’s heroine spends the entirety of World War II chasing around Europe trying to free her Jewish husband from German concentration camps, but when they are finally reunited, it is not the expected fairy-tale ending. The husband, like Duro, refuses to forget. He blames his wife for the death of his family, and blames himself for surviving when they all died. One day he leaves her a note saying he’s going away and won’t be back.
That’s the price, it seems, of remembering too much. The present rushes on, and leaves you behind. Duro, too, is isolated and alone, stuck in the past and unable to give more than a small portion of himself to people in the present. His family either died in the war or moved away. His friends are now his enemies. All he has are his two dogs. At one point, it seems as if he and Laura may become romantically involved, but he is too distant, still thinking of his friend Anka.
His brother-in-law Luka tells him there are flats available in Zagreb:
There were hundreds going spare. You had to act fast for the good ones. Some people just moved in and claimed they’d been living there for years. Sometimes it worked.
“What if the tenants come back?”
“Too bad,” he shrugged.
Even though Duro refuses, his sister Danica still occasionally tries to get him to move. When she finally tells him she and his mother are moving to New Zealand, she tells him, “Life goes on, Duro.”
It’s in scenes like this that the novel moves beyond the theme of war to enter more general territory. Danica’s advice will, after all, be familiar to anyone who has experienced loss. Move on, start fresh, make a clean break, turn the page, start a new chapter. DSM-V, the latest version of the American Psychiatric Association’s manual for diagnosing mental health conditions, now states that grief extending for more than two weeks can be diagnosed as major depressive disorder and medicated accordingly. Move on, turn the page. Even the very act of remembering is being devalued, as we increasingly trust Google and Wikipedia to do it for us.
But the problem with shedding the past so freely is that it renders meaningless such basic human principles as justice. Duro is the only person in the book who refuses to forget Anka and the baker and all the other ghosts of the war, the only one who refuses to acknowledge the right of their former friends and neighbours to be living in their houses and sitting on their furniture. He stands for the principle that injustice has no expiration date. This is why remembering is so important.
Big themes, but Forna pulls off the novelist’s trick of making them appear to arise unbidden from the story itself. The result is an impressive, beautifully told story, dodging seamlessly between past and present, creating a vivid picture of life and loss and the refusal to forget.
Andrew Blackman is a fiction writer living in Crete. He’s had two novels published in the UK: A Virtual Love and On the Holloway Road. He’s also written extensively for magazines and newspapers, and blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.