“The Hired Man” by Aminatta Forna

This very recent (2013) book is about civil war and the ways people respond to violence within their communities. It’s one of those books that makes me ask “why fiction”? Why not tell the truth, as completely as possible? Is the reading public burnt out on truth from war zones? Minor quibble…

Forna begins by creating her protagonist, an inscrutable man named Duro. He is educated and sophisticated beyond his chosen status in life, that of a small town “day laborer” who supplements his income by hunting. He lives alone with two hunting dogs, and is intensely tuned in to the hilly landscape around him. He is also intensely tuned in to the past, to memories and long ago decisions. He describes the past as being like a child imprisoned behind the walls of a room. Sometimes the child stirs and calls out…

I’m not familiar with the recent history of Yugoslavia, so sometimes I found the plot of The Hired Man disorienting. Forna does not specify people’s ethnic identities. I’m willing to assume she wanted the story to seem “universal”. Reading reviews on Amazon, I learned that plainly many readers disliked this approach.

Duro becomes hired man and tour guide to an English family (mother and two teenagers) who move into the empty “blue house” (which is practically a character) for a summer holiday. Interesting choice of family… The teenagers are unformed, in perpetual change, compared to their slightly stuffy, vaguely clueless mother, whose name is Laura.

Duro keeps all information about the recent (16 years previous?) civil war from the family, claiming his father and sister died in “an accident” and the fighting happened somewhere else. He begins to play dangerous games, using the family to stir painful local memories. For instance, he fixes an old car and encourages Laura to drive it. It reminds the village residents of the former owners, who disappeared during the conflict. Laura has no idea why people sometimes treat her with strange hostility.

I attended a discussion of The Hired Man with a local book club. One line of interpretation had to do with “tribalism”. This was defined as ethnic identification based on very, very long term tenure on land, hence, something possible in Europe or Africa, but not in North America except among indigenous people. An attempt to analyze racial tensions in the United States didn’t go very far. I felt like I was hearing an assertion of “it can’t happen here” which made me feel uncomfortable.

The name of Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel, who died in early July, was mentioned. How did he “come to terms” with what he witnessed during World War II? How did he become a leader and a “hero of human rights”? I was reminded of this quotation from Aeschylus:

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Wiesel transcended the Holocaust. He became wise.

I don’t think Duro was headed for transcendence. I think his fate was to be locked between vengeance and reconciliation, his life suspended and painfully incomplete.

But that’s just me, projecting into Forna’s astonishing novel. Some of us wondered if there may be a sequel. It’s hard to let go of the characters.

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