An Englishwoman’s arrival in a Croatian town shows how the scars of the past continue to affect the present.
Who says tribal killings take place only in Rwanda? What about Croatia? The only difference is that Europeans euphemistically call it ‘ethnic cleansing’. But Croatia is no better than Rwanda. This is the reason that Aminatta Forna, the novelist from Sierra Leone, moves out of her homeland to Croatia in her third novel, The Hired Man. As she says: ‘there’s an ability to see the politics and planning in Yugoslavia, and a refusal to see the complexities of African situations’. Added to this is the interesting fact that the British turned to countries like Croatia in search of holiday homes while being reluctant to venture into Africa.
Treachery, silence and failure remain her concerns after her first two successful novels, Ancestor Stones and The Memory of Love. She has thought deeply and written and lectured extensively on the pain of Civil War and the loss of her father who was hanged in 1975 in Sierra Leone. The locale in her new novel is a small town by the name of Gost situated between Zagreb and the coast of Croatia that is surrounded by a breathtaking topography of mountains and wild flowers. The personal becomes the political as she explores her loss and the effects of silence in the making of history. Literature for her becomes an exploration of the larger issues of morality and political involvement.
The lonely narrator, Duro Kolak, lives with his two dogs in a cottage on the outskirts of Gost near a farmhouse, which is revisited by an English woman, Laura, and her two children. Though attracted by its isolated beauty, she is disenchanted by the market town. ‘Laura wanted cheese and cured meats, olives soaked in oil and vine ... Instead she found imitation leather jackets, mobile-phone covers and pickled vegetables.’ Laura is a little annoyed by the existence of a single bakery. She learns later that the other bakery closed when its owners moved out as a result of the ethnic cleansing. Almost overjoyed at the new arrivals, Duro becomes Laura’s interpreter, friend and a handyman in renovating the place. Though tranquil, the location is a reminder of the recent bloodshed that the inhabitants have experienced with all their petty rivalries brought out minutely by Forna. The peaceful present is intermingled with the memories of the battle-scarred history of civil war leaving its deep impact on the psyche of those who are still haunted by the ‘ghosts’, a metaphor of the memories they cannot obliterate. As Forna writes: ‘Civil war is a specific experience where neighbour turns on neighbour. What’s key is that you don’t get away from it — there are echoes. We’re all living with it.’
Those like Laura are the outsiders who seem to be more taken in by the romance of the place but soon become aware of the mental turbulence lingering beneath the quiet surface. The psychological conflict resulting from a disturbed past is here turned into the ‘truth’ about the nightmare of history that haunts the survivors: ‘Grudges are reckoned. Greed grows. People denounce their neighbours to the new authorities with an eye on their freezers and televisions.’
And one day a mosaic of a golden-plumed bird is revealed beneath peeling plaster, an image created by Duro’s childhood love Anka whose presence and joy Duro can feel in every nuance. As the mosaic is resurrected, the fragments of civil strife emerge only to throw light on the reasons the Serbian Orthodox churches now lie closed or the many shops wear a deserted look. Forna avoids elaborating on ethnic cleansing but skilfully brings out the simmering tensions and the moral guilt of those who remain silent on their involvement. The victims and the criminals now reside side by side trying to reconcile with each other and with their shadowy past.
The Hired Man; Aminatta Forna, Bloomsbury, Rs. 499.