Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Aminatta Forna's The hired man

Aminatta Forna was strongly recommended to us by one of our original members, who now joins us only in spirit from her coast abode. We chose The hired man, Forna's most recent novel, and it proved a good choice - we had a fascinating discussion.

The language was spare, the setting sparse

As we usually do, we started by asking if everyone had read it, and had we all liked it. A couple said that it had taken them a while to get into it. For one, it was because of the spare language and sparse setting. She usually likes the opposite she said. But, when she picked it up to give it a second go, she said, she loved it, partly because Forna is good at building up a sense that "something big will happen". Similarly, another said the beginning was slow-going, though she noticed "words" and "little clues" hinting at where it was going. She really enjoyed the second half.

Which war?

So, to get to the nub. The novel is set in Croatia. Our first person narrator Duro tells us about his life in the town of Gost from his youth, through the Croatian War of Independence and up to 2007. While war frames the story, the issues that drive the plot start pre-war, when Duro falls out with his best friend Krešimir who shows himself to be cruel, and full of hatred. This turns out to be just a precursor for what happens during the civil war when "men started hunting each other" and neighbour turned against neighbour, particularly as "ethnic cleansing" started to happen. It's a macho, chauvinistic world, one that Duro belongs to but doesn't condone.

We discussed the relevance of reading this book just as we've commemorated the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day which has made us think about the definition of heroism, what we understand about conflict and its causes, and the whole randomness of who survives and who doesn't. While these aren't Forna's main themes, they are present. One horrific scene, for example, occurs when Duro describes the death of his father and sister, caught by a shell because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What sort of narrator?

We spent quite a bit of time discussing Duro. A few of us wondered at first whether he might be an unreliable narrator, but we all agreed that while he didn't always tell us the whole truth when we'd expect it, he was reliable. As our psychotherapist member said, many who have experienced traumatic war often don't tell the full story - some never, others not straightaway.

The novel opens in 2007 with Duro telling us that "at the time of writing I am forty-six years old". Later we realise he is writing it for a future reader, after he dies:
They will go through my papers and when they do they will find this. 
Maybe that person is you. Or, at least, I have to tell this story and I must tell it to somebody, so it may as well be you, come to sort through my belongings.
So, here we have it in Chapter 3, his need to tell us a story - and what a story it is. Given all Duro had experienced and lost, we wondered why he'd stayed. We decided there were probably two reasons: he wanted to be the thorn in the side of those men who betrayed their neighbours, and perhaps he hoped that his first love, Anka, who had "disappeared", might return. We also felt that while his life seemed "small", he knows himself and what he is doing, he's self-sufficient and in control of who he is.

What have the English got to do with it?

Duro is prompted to write his story by the arrival of an English woman, Laura, with her teenage son and daughter, Matthew and Grace. Laura and her husband have bought a house and plan to do it up, sell it, and move on. This house is the "blue" house which had been Krešimir and Anka's home. Duro, a handyman, becomes Laura's "hired man", to help renovate the house. As he does so, he becomes friendly with them - but, surprisingly to us, despite sexual tension, he never "makes a pass" at this married woman.

There is an underlying theme here of the British moving into Europe, oblivious of history and inherent dangers:
The way the English saw it, the past was always better. But in this country our love of the past is a great deal less, unless it is a very distant past indeed, the kind nobody alive can remember, a past transformed into a song or a poem. We tolerate the present, but what we love is the future, which is about as far away from the past as it is possible to be
Laura acts as a catalyst for Duro's memory, and for the resolution of the novel. She reminds him of Anka. (Interestingly, her favouring of her son and rather dismissive treatment of her daughter parallels the way Krešimir and Anka's mother had treated them.)

We are all implicated

We spent some time discussing the conclusion. We had various theories about what it meant. Why would Laura want to return after being intimidated by the town bully? Who was doing the graffiti, and why? Whatever the answers, we agreed that the ending was intended to be positive - as positive as it could be, anyhow - and that Forna's "message" is that the only way towns like this can survive is for their people to learn to live together.

We concluded the night with a lovely Croatian Cherry and Walnut Cake made by our host Kate. It was yum.

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