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Sunday October 20, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday October 20, 2013 MYT 9:02:34 AM
By MARC DE FAOITE
AUTHOR Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland, but spent much of her childhood overseas. Her previous two novels, The Memory Of Love and Ancestor Stones, have won numerous awards and her memoir, The Devil That Danced On The Water, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. She was one of the panel of judges for the 2013 Man Booker Prize announced on Tuesday.
The Hired Man is her latest novel and is set in a fictional town named Gost in present-day Croatia. Laura is an Englishwoman with two teenaged children and an absent second husband. They have bought an old house on the outskirts of the town which they intend to renovate and keep as a holiday home.
The narrator, Duro Kolak, is a local man. He is good with his hands and is the only person in the town who speaks English. Laura hires him to do some maintenance and renovation, but is unaware of Duro’s personal past connection to the house. In fact, Duro knows the house so well that when he climbs the wooden stairs he automatically avoids the steps that creak.
Anton Chekov once said that if there was a gun in the first chapter then it had to go off by the second or third chapter. In The Hired Man the gun is introduced in the very first paragraph, but the reader has to wait quite a bit longer than Chekov advised before the shooting starts. In fact, the reader spends quite a long time waiting for anything to happen.
Duro is a marksman who never misses his shot. Most of the shooting is at the deer that shelter in the woods on the surrounding hills, but the past is slowly revealed.
There is a sense of something lurking beneath the surface throughout this book and the poignant exchanged glances and charged exchanges among Duro and the townsfolk conceal more than they reveal. Laura is blissfully unaware of all this. Where she sees beautiful pastures full of wild flowers, Duro sees fields have been left fallow for fear of unexploded landmines. Much is hidden beneath the surface. Crumbling plaster on the façade of the house reveals a hidden mosaic. A fountain is discovered beneath the weeds in the garden. An old car is concealed under a dusty tarpaulin. With Duro’s help these things are restored and he uses Laura and her family to recreate elements of the past the significance of which only the locals will understand.
The graveyard is laid out like a mirror of the town with rows and zones for the rich and the poor. But even the dead are haunted by the past and some of the graves and their stones have been blown apart by a bomb. The Orthodox church is unused and abandoned because the people who prayed there ‘went away.’ There are gaps in the village, like the abandoned bakery. There are shops that Duro boycotts, driving far out of his way rather than to give them any business.
Over the summer Laura and her family gradually come to suspect that all in Gost is not what it appears, but they never truly discover the truth and any time things get uncomfortable Duro is always there to smooth things out and feed them fictions that will make them feel safe.
While skilful and mastered, the writing is somewhat cold and distant. Like the damaged narrator, the writer herself has had her fair share of tragedy (her father was hanged for treason in Sierra Leone when she was 11 years old) and there is something staid and clinical about the style that keeps the reader at arm’s length. There is plenty of precision but very little poetry, and what little music there is in the writing has all the appeal of the dull rhythmic ticking of a metronome.
The cardboard-cut-out characters feature in the story, but they are never really part of the story. They are neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but if the truth be told, apart from the narrator it is difficult to feel anything for any of them.
At times the narrator slips into the second person, addressing the reader directly, but it happens so infrequently that when it does it jars and rends the otherwise seamless fabric of the story and reveals it for the artifice it is.
What is very well done though is the way the writer depicts the after-effects of the unspeakable, or how people continue their lives despite the awful knowledge of what has been done by ordinary neighbours to other neighbours; how a simple thing like using a different word for “bread” can lead to an unmarked mass grave and how people learn to live with their ghosts and with themselves.
It is an uncomfortable and edgy book that derives its strength by working its way around things rather than facing or stating them directly, much like the cryptic conversations between Duro and his childhood pals who he wishes dead but has no wish to kill, even though he reveals that killing is something that comes very easily and naturally to him.
The deer he kills out of necessity, the soldiers he kills, not because his life is threatened in any way, but just because he can. Despite this chilling side of his character he is the one who ultimately finds the strength to forgive his neighbours and former friends for what they have done. Though he isn’t above using Laura and her family to thumb his nose at them and taunt them for what they have done.
The writer finally gets into her stride in the last few chapters, which are the most fluid and readable of the whole book, and it ends more or less satisfyingly.
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