Nostalgic trip

Nostalgic trip

Aminatta Forna, an outstanding African writer in recent times, is often compared with Chimananda Ngozi Adichie. To call her an African writer is indeed belittling her eminence. In many senses she can be called a ‘universal writer’. (She is half-Scottish too.) The common concerns of human beings like love, hate, jealousy, war, crime, sex, hunger, education, health, politics, etc., form the main themes in her novels.

The Hired Man is an experience. The experience is constituted by nostalgia — the memory that seeps into the present, complex interpersonal relationships, ethnic violence, anarchy, and the overarching influence of the market forces, which is making deep inroads into the otherwise quiet place.

The milieu, though imagined, is an authentic village in the middle of Europe called ‘Gost’, which means ‘guest’. The village had been a wonderful host to any visitor in the past. But ironically, the story is full of ‘ghosts’ that haunt the narrator. Gost resembles a war destroyed village in Croatia. The narrator, who is also the protagonist of the novel, is a 46-year-old Duro Kolak, who gets connected with the renovating work of his neighbouring ravaged house, which was recently acquired by a middle aged English woman called Laura for converting it into a holiday home. Laura has two teenage children, a girl and a boy, the latter an irresponsible teenager, and the former, a little elderly but a highly mature individual who can see things around her from a perspective. Laura, along with her second husband, the step-father of her children, wants to make the place look exotic. Kolak’s intervention in her plan opens up a revelation of the past — the whole gamut of ethnic war, jealousy, betrayal, selfishness and romance. It’s not just the house that’s ravaged, but the entire village and their minds. There is no way in which the black scar of the past can be erased and the villagers do not want to remember it either. They want to live with the ignominy of history. The attempt of Kolak (at the instance of Laura) to rediscover the glory is jeopardised and that is the tragedy of both Kolak and Gost.

In this exciting novel, there has been a wide range of representations — idealism of Kolak, pragmatism of Laura, opportunism of Fabjan, unquestioned faith of Anka, villainy of Kresmir and so on. All these are interspersed with linguistic stylistic devices to make the reader experience the mysterious horror in Gost.

History has many problems. Kolak, who cannot forget the past, wants to resurrect the blue house, in a way to resurrect Gost. But recreating history is in a way repetition of history. Anka’s family is replaced by Laura’s. Anka’s family is destroyed and Laura has to leave Gost. Thus there seems to be something diabolic about the people and the place there.

What is missing in the narrative is the lack of ironic contemplation, the gap that should exist between the narrator and the protagonist. While Kolak’s tenderness towards everyone, including his dogs Kos and Zeka, his cynical anger towards Kresmir, his acceptance of cold blooded opportunism of Fabjan, could be understood, his silence over the motivation for villainy of Kresmir towards his own self is not comprehensible. Why does Kresmir hate Kolak, his sister Anka and her husband, and even his father? Can it be put aside by saying that it is just an example of irrational hatred? Similarly, there seems to be no introspection in Kolak about his relationship with his enemies. He keeps himself and his family on an unquestionable adoring pedestal. Sometimes his mind is also occupied by self pity. One is also tempted to ask how is it that a person who could belong to a particular class (in the European sense) could be so sensitive. It is also difficult to imagine a person with Kolak’s background with a delicate taste for music, for fiction, and a refinement that is necessary to understand the sophisticated English culture.

A dense array of images and tens of symbols are weaved together in the narrative. The details of hunting — of Kolak’s enemies, birds and animals, his close engagement with hard work and routine exercises, the melancholy associated with the mercy killing of his dog, the teenage pranks of his friends, have a mysterious effect on readers. Thus the novel makes the reading a compelling one too.

The Hired Man
Aminatta Forna
2013, pp 293