Croatia is the newest member state of the European Union (since July 2013) and a young country altogether. Independence dates back only to 1991 and wasn't gained easily. Unlike in the case of Slovenia, the government of Yugoslavia wasn't willing to let the country leave the federation without fighting. Combats between Croatian and Yugoslav units reinforced by local Serbs went on until 1992 and escalated in the genocidal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina including adjacent areas. Peace wasn't restored until 1995. For today's review I picked the novel The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna which deals with Croatia's recent history.
Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow, Scotland, UK, in 1964 and grew up in her father's country Sierra Leone as well as in Britain. After her law studies in London and Berkeley, USA, she worked as a journalist for the BBC. In her first book the author The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Memoir (2002) investigated the tragic events leading to her father's hanging for treason in 1975. Following this first success, Aminatta Forna turned to fiction writing and brought out the award-winning novels Ancester Stones (2006) and The Memory of Love (2010). Her latest published work is The Hired Man (2013) which has been received with much acclaim as well. She lives in London with her husband and works as a Professor of Creative Writing.
The scene of The Hired Man is the fictitious town of Gost which owes its name to the fact that the word means ‘guest’ in Croatian. It's a quiet place on the outskirts of the town somewhere in the mountains of Croatia and small enough for people to all know each other. So it's no wonder that in the summer of 2007 the arrival of the Englishwoman Laura and her teenage children Matthew and Grace is noticed and talked about at once. When the first-person-narrator Duro Kolak returns from hunting in the forests with his two dogs, he is surprised to meet them in ‘the blue house’ as he calls it. His cottage is next door, but he had no idea that the deserted and decayed house had been sold. Since Laura doesn’t speak Croatian, Duro offers to help her with all the necessary repairs. For him, a 46-year-old unmarried man who makes his living with odd jobs, it’s a welcome opportunity to earn money although it turns out later that he also has other reasons to work up the place which he has known since his childhood. He takes care that Laura discovers the mosaic on the façade – the work of his vanished friend Anka – which had been plastered and whitewashed years before, so she and her daughter will bring it back to light. And just as the ‘red-bodied bird, golden plumed, dragging a golden tail’ emerges little by little from its cover, so does the past of Duro, of the inhabitants of the blue house and of Croatia which annoys many people in town, most of all Duro’s now despised boyhood friends Krešimir and Fabjan who are the last remaining of ‘the old crowd’.
In a simple language Aminatta Forna evokes the peaceful atmosphere of a typical little town tucked away in the Croatian mountains which is ever more often replaced by the powerful memories of The Hired Man who saw and had his share in the horrors of war. In Duro’s mind the events of the past are still more present than everything that happens during the weeks working on the house and the author emphasizes this fact by telling his memories in historical present and using the past tense for current events. With great skill Aminatta Forna manages to constantly heighten suspense until the story of the deserted blue house and the fate of all those people who disappeared from Gost over night and without trace is finally revealed. It required some research to write this book and as far as I can judge it, the writer did a very good job there.
Being Austrian the Balkan Wars of the 1990s are still quite fresh in my memory. At the time all media covered the fights and atrocities every day and many refugees came to my country, above all Bosnians who then settled down here for good. Twenty years later most of what happened lies covered under the thin blanket of daily routine and in many places like Gost the enemies of yesterday live together with terrible memories lurking in the backs of their minds. I think that it’s important to remember what blind (national or religious) fanaticism, especially in combination with opportunism or predatoriness, can lead to. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna is an excellent novel to remind us of the dark sides of the human soul and their repercussions in world history.