As outsiders in Croatia with only the most simplistic understanding of it’s relatively recent civil war, we wondered how people here have been effected by living through – or being born soon after – the violence that took place in this land only 30 years ago. The Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001), locally dubbed as the Homeland War, involved brutal atrocities including ethnic cleansing and rape. It resulted in massive human and economic damage. Walking around Split, we couldn’t help but wonder whether that group of old men, now laughing on the park bench, was once party to war crimes? Was that young woman hiking in Marjan park conceived in anguish or during a joyous post-war reunion? Did that grandmother walking home from church lose her home, husband, or sons? Or did she support the destruction another woman’s home, husband, and sons? Her neighbor’s, maybe.
Before we travel to a new country we listen to podcasts and read both non-fiction and fiction about the area to help inform our visit. Our fiction pick for Croatia was Aminatta Forna’s novel The Hired Man, and we listened to it as we drove to and through Croatia. The story begins in 2007, as Englishwoman Laura arrives in Gost, a small Croatian town, to holiday in a house she’s purchased. She enlists a local fix-it man, Duro, to restore the property, which has sat neglected for many years. As he patches the roof, repaints shutters, and addresses other odds and ends, he becomes an indispensable friend to Laura and her two teenage children. Duro works with Laura’s youngest, her daughter, in the painstaking work of restoring a tile mosaic decorating a fountain in the garden. He teaches Laura’s self-involved older son how to hunt and how to drive an old car they found stored in a shed on the property. He acts as a sounding board, confidante, and guide for Laura. However, with each improvement and restoration to the house the neighbors in Gost become increasingly agitated, with Laura and her family and with Duro. The story is told from Duro’s perspective, and, as the renovations gradually transform the house back to it’s original form, Duro gradually weaves in the history of the home’s former owners and of the town. As the past is revealed through the restoration of the house, it brings back a history the townspeople would rather leave buried.
John: Duro’s style of narration is unsettling: he observes and describes what he witnesses in colorful detail without explaining his thoughts or feelings about what he is seeing, remembering, or experiencing. He will tell you what others are doing, and he’ll speculate about their reasons for their actions, but doesn’t do the same for himself. The result is a seat-of-your-pants feeling in the listener: you never know what he will do, but you want to find out. The audio book narration by Mark Leadbetter is a perfect complement to this narrative style…the voice you hear reading the book *becomes* Duro!
The further we got along in this book, the more I concerned I became with how the story would end… I was definitely involved from start to finish. The characters are so vivid, they jump right out of the book: I thought of them as real people. The actual ending left me very glad we had chosen this as our main literary introduction to Croatia, it gave me a window into the soul of the country. Highly recommend!
Sarah: I echo most of what John said. I was most definitely involved in the story from start to finish. I found Forna’s writing evocative but sparse – it gave me enough to set a vivid scene but always left me wanting something more, wanting to know what was going to happen next, wanting to know what the characters are thinking. It was really hard to get any kind of feeling for where the story might be going – and so I wanted to keep listening and listening until I found out! The characters don’t say much about themselves, but are still richly drawn through their own actions and their interactions with each other. Duro’s character is enigmatic. He’s sympathetic but there’s something very disquieting about him as well.
I thought The Hired Man was a brilliantly told story of a complex time and a complex people. It brought the reader right in to the dark, stark, and ugly reality of a horrible war fought, literally, on your own soil and with your own friends and neighbors. We could feel the emotional distance the characters had to create to survive the past and the distance they still had to use to survive the present. I thought the understated prose underscored the brutality of the story. At a time when everything in our world feels sensationalized – by social media, by reality TV, and even by trusted news sources – this book feels real. You can feel in your gut just how brutal a time and a place and a people can be, but without judgement. The author tells you, “this happened. it was really bad. people did this to other people. and this is how they live with it.”
I hope this book has helped me look around at the people I see in Croatia and know that some of them have lived through very bad things. That others may have perpetrated very bad things. Still others might be the result of very bad things. And that everyone lives with the past, whatever that may be, in whatever way they can. No judgement. I highly recommend this read.
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