Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna tells the story of life in a Croatian village before, during and after the violent war that broke Yugoslavia apart. I’ve recorded my reflections on the book here while trying not to give away what happens!
The central character, Duro, is a tough man of few words who prefers solitude to being around other people. He lives with two hunting dogs in a converted pig shed on farmland outside a village named Gost in what became Croatia.
Duro’s rhythms of subsistence living are interrupted in the summer of 2007 when a British family buys the abandoned blue house near his home. Duro needs work and contrives to meet Laura so that she can notice that he speaks English and hopefully she will ask him to help her restore the house that has been vacant for 16 years. It works and Duro starts repairs on the house immediately. Duro is reliable and soon gains the trust of the English family. As the summer progresses Duro forms individual bonds with Laura and each of her two teenage children, Grace and Matthew. The restoration of a spectacular mosaic on the side of the house brings the family together.
As Duro works on the blue house and gets to know the English family he remembers his past and narrates to us, in memoir form, beginning with childhood friendships with his neighbours Krešimir and Anka. They like to go hunting and it seems to be a typical childhood for Croatian children living on small farms near a village. Over the course of the book we have the twin stories told to us of Duro with the English family in 2007 and Duro’s recollections moving steadily forward in time through the war and its awful aftermath.
It would be easy for Laura and the reader to assume that Duro would have a small world view with limited knowledge of the larger world but this is challenged when Laura asks Duro if he’s heard of Bath in the UK and he replies Pride and Prejudice. Conversely, Laura walks around the Croatian village assuming that everyone will speak to her in English. Duro feels this is arrogant and it is but I must admit that I do the same in Norway and it really works well! There’s another amusing observation on Laura about her disappointment with the markets in Gost
Laura wanted cheese and cured meats, olives soaked in oil and vine tomatoes, like in Italy. Instead she found imitation leather jackets, mobile-phone covers and pickled vegetables
This reminds me of the central markets in Warsaw that we visited in 2005. We didn’t find anything charming or handmade, just used clothes, big underwear, pirated movies and music, used Soviet military uniforms and some old weapons.
Just last month I read in Paul Theroux’s book The Pillars of Hercules about the methods used by the Serbian artillery attacks on Croatian towns during the war. In The Hired Man we live through a siege by the Serbs. It really is a cowardly way to conduct war. Similar to the NATO approach now in Syria and Iraq.When the siege ends and the Serb militia move away to the north, the National Guard arrive in Gost and, that abomination of war, ‘ethnic cleansing’ begins.
Forna is interesting in her writing by never mentioning the ethnic origin of any of the characters because it doesn’t matter, right? Wrong, the ethnic cleansing hinges on the killing and expulsion of the ethnic Serbs who have lived peacefully in Gost for unknown numbers of generations. Forna gives the reader some hints, by mentioning who attends the Orthodox church in Gost without actually naming those people as Serb.
Grudges are reckoned. Greed grows. People denounce their neighbours to the new authorities with an eye on their chest freezers and televisions
One of my close friends is a refugee living in Australia. He is ethnically Serb and was living in a village in what became Croatia during the war. He fled into the mountains at night and survived. Reading The Hired Man helped me to better understand what my friend went through.
It’s incredible to read about perpetrators and victims continuing to live side by side in Gost after the war. The perpetrators always checking over their shoulders in case they are going to be caught by an investigation of war crimes and the victims simmering with a rage that can never be appeased. I once attended a wonderful peace circle event in Canberra, Australia where a woman from Rwanda talked about the peace that comes with forgiveness and that by her work in the prisons in Rwanda to alleviate the suffering of the perpetrators of the genocide she was able to forgive and heal herself. It sounded wonderful when she talked about it but I wonder if that can only happen when the perpetrators are brought to justice, it’s impossible to see that type of forgiveness happening in Gost where the perpetrators continue to occupy the positions of power.
Forna did a great job to write a beautiful novel full of suspense, friendship, love, grief, atrocities and the wonderful small things that make up life. I was deeply drawn into the story and I continue to think about it. I don’t have a strong stomach for reading about genocide but I didn’t need that here because of her care to keep the story from becoming unbearable. I cried a couple of times, mostly when dear Kos was killed. Forna evoked the natural beauty and wonders of butterflies, wildflowers, and waterholes to reward the reader for reading on.
I’m glad that I read this great book. What did you think?
Here’s another review that I enjoyed reading: