Brutal past bleeds into the present
The Hired Man
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