Bru­tal past bleeds into the present

The Hired Man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Geordie Wil­liamson

By Ami­natta Forna Blooms­bury, 293pp, $29.99

THERE is a sly lit­tle dig buried about halfway through The Hired Man. Grace is the young daugh­ter of Laura, an English­woman who has bought a di­lap­i­dated house on the edge of a vil­lage in Croa­tia as a ren­o­va­tion pro­ject and then moved in for the sum­mer. The girl has heard ru­mours of con­flict. She asks anx­iously whether war came to the town of Gost. Duro Ko­lak, a lo­cal builder who has be­come in­dis­pens­able to the fam­ily, as­sures Grace the town of his birth has al­ways been peace­ful and safe, a bu­colic haven from his­tory. ‘‘ Good heav­ens,’’ adds Laura, ‘‘ this isn’t Africa.’’

But what the Scot­tish-born, Sierra Leonereared Ami­natta Forna is say­ing here is, yes, this is Africa. The fig­ure who pre­ceded Liberia’s Charles Tay­lor in the dock of The Hague for war crimes was Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic, and the con­flict in the Balkans over which the Yu­goslav leader presided is a dis­mal re­minder that our ca­pac­ity for in­ter-tribal war­fare and geno­cide is univer­sal. Events there dur­ing the 1990s sug­gested Euro­pean ‘‘ civil­i­sa­tion’’ was ve­neer-thin, an en­cul­tured ide­ol­ogy of racial ex­cep­tion­al­ism.

And, of course, Duro has told a lie: the war in­deed came to Gost. We know this be­cause Forna’s deeply felt and coolly self-con­tained third novel is told from Duro’s per­spec­tive. He’s the per­son we meet first, hunt­ing in the hills above the vil­lage, and he car­ries about him some­thing of the moral un­ease that comes to char­ac­terise the en­tire nar­ra­tive. When Laura’s car first ar­rives at the old Pavic house Duro fol­lows its progress though ri­fle-sights. He tracks the new ar­rivals with the same quiet com­pe­tence he brings to stalk­ing deer.

Hav­ing es­tab­lished the req­ui­site at­mos­phere of ner­vous an­tic­i­pa­tion, how­ever, Forna per­forms a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally adroit about- turn. Be­cause Duro turns out to be the good guy — a far harder task, to make de­cency swing on the page — while the main nar­ra­tive is con­cerned with events from years ear­lier. As Duro later ex­plains: ‘‘ Laura ar­rived in Gost and opened a trap­door. Be­neath the trap­door was an in­fi­nite tun­nel and that tun­nel led to the past.’’

In the author’s firm but del­i­cate hands Duro’s his­tory grad­u­ally comes to light. At first we linger in the present, those few weeks when Laura, fol­low­ing a first, ac­ci­den­tal en­counter with her neigh­bour, re­quests his as­sis­tance with the house: tasks he en­gages with a rigour and pro­fi­ciency that is oddly sat­is­fy­ing. There is also a cer­tain touris­tic fas­ci­na­tion in com­ing to know the vil­lage of Gost, de­spite its dreary shops and charm­less cafe owned by the lo­cal black marketeer, be­cause of the echoes of an im­memo­rial peas­ant cul­ture it holds: The grave­yard is just like Gost, with rows of tombs in­stead of houses and paths in place of streets. There are dif­fer­ent neigh­bour­hoods for the rich and the poor and for peo­ple who wor­ship in one church and peo­ple who wor­ship in an­other. Ev­ery­thing you need to know about Gost is here in the ceme­tery.

Like­wise, Duro’s early life, which Forna in­ter­leaves with the con­tem­po­rary nar­ra­tive, opens with a suit­ably Edenic tinge. We learn of his child­hood friend­ship with Kres­imir Pavic, and of his teenage love af­fair with Kres­imir’s sis­ter, Anka, who spent her fi­nal years in the vil­lage in the house Laura bought. The vil­lage is dis­tant enough from any po­lit­i­cal cen­tre that even the post-war decades of po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion and rel­a­tive scarcity hardly touch it. With­out ro­man­ti­cis­ing in the least, Forna forms a pic­ture of Gost be­fore the con­flict whose plain virtues — fam­ily, com­mu­nity, work — are all the more pow­er­ful for hav­ing been an­ni­hi­lated since.

The re­mark­able thing about Forna’s use of this bru­tal pe­riod is her re­straint. She re­duces the broad con­flict to a lo­cal sliver with­out los­ing a sense of its im­pact on soldiers and

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