‘The Hired Man’ by Aminatta Forna (2013) – 293 pages
Did you know that Croatia is the 18th most popular tourist destination in the world? As you can see from the map of Croatia, it has a long coastline with many large islands along the Adriatic Sea across from Italy.
The novel ‘The Hired Man’ by Aminatta Forna takes place in current times around the small town of Gost in Croatia. An English family has purchased a house there to remodel and resell at a substantial profit to tourists. The wife, Laura, and the two children, Matthew and Grace, have come for the summer to begin work on the house. When they arrive there, they meet a local handyman Duro Kolek who lives near their purchased house. Soon Laura hires him to help with the remodeling. The entire novel is told from the point of view of Duro, the local Croatian.
The style of ‘The Hired Man’ reminds me very much of the style of ‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro which I and many others consider one of the great novels of the last quarter century. Actually all three of Ishiguro’s first three novels, ‘A Pale View of Hills’ and ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ as well as ‘The Remains of the Day’ are written in this style. (By the way how about Kazuo Ishiguro for the Nobel?) Since ‘The Hired Man’ has the style also, let me describe it.
The story begins quite simply. In the case of ‘The Hired Man’, Duro begins working at the house and gets to know Laura and the two children. There is an undercurrent of an innocent attachment between Duro and Laura. The day-to-day interaction between Duro and the family is told in methodical fashion and the tourist setting seems almost idyllic.
But then the sad complicated history of Gost and Croatia slowly begins to intrude on the idyll. Since the story is told in allegorical form (like ‘The Remains of the Day’), don’t expect the particulars on the recent history of Croatia. ‘The Hired Man’ does not have the facts or the details about the troubles in Croatia in the 1990s. All we learn is that there are differences between groups of people within the same neighborhood. We can all relate to that. These differences may be ethnic, political, racial, religious, economic, or some combination of these. Apparently in rural Croatia it got to the point where some of these neighborhood groups formed militias to take care of the problem.
Apparently today in Croatia the problems have subsided, and they are intent on turning their country into a world-class tourist destination. However sometimes the conflicts of the past come back to haunt.
For me to compare ‘The Hired Man’ to ‘The Remains of the Day’ is high praise, and ‘The Hired Man’ is indeed an impressive novel. Originally I wondered why Aminatta Forna, a Scottish-born English writer, would write a novel set in Croatia. However just as Kazuo Ishiguro as an outsider had strong insight into upper class English society, Forna as an outsider has strong insight into modern Croatia. If you’ve liked the work of Kazuo Ishiguro before, you will definitely like ‘The Hired Man’.