Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Minatta Forna, The Hired Man (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013)

     The Hired Man is recent novel (2013) about an era of conflict addressed
to some extent in film (2001) but seldom in literature: the years of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) and the decades following. One notable exception to this paucity of writing is Steven Galloway's novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo ( Riverhead Trade, 2009)

In the country of Croatia and other Balkan enclaves, this ethnic and sectarian conflict has been a moving if successful subject for a variety of films. There national origins tell us show searing this experience has been for those engaged.  A brief list includes these films from many lands:

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Serbian: Лепа села лепо горе (Lepa sela lepo gore), literally translated as "Beautiful villages burn beautifully") is a 1996 Yugoslavian film directed by Srđan Dragojević that gave uniquely bleak yet darkly humorous account of the Bosnian War. The times referred to as a war of aggression and sometimes a civil war.

As If I Am Not There is a 2010 Irish drama film directed by Juanita Wilson. The film is set in the Balkans and is shot in the Serbo-Croatian language.[1] The film was selected as the Irish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards,[1][2][3] but it did not make the final shortlist.[4] The film is based on Slavenka Drakulić's 1999 novel of the same name that deals with war rape in Bosnia in the 1990s.[5]

  Grbavica is a 2006 film by Jasmila Žbanić  It won the Golden Bear at the 56th Berlin International Film Festival and it was Bosnia & Herzegovina's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 79th Academy Awards

In The Hired Man, there are subtle clues about the life of Duro, a very fit, skilled jack-of -all-trades and intelligent single man in mid-life (a teenager in the 1970s), with a good command of English. The more complex plot takes place under the surface story: Dudro is restoring an old house for its new owner, an English lady, who (significantly) has never lived in a house that had been finished, no longer under repair. He carries more than a few ghosts and lines of remorse.   Many memories and vast connections have been accrued from restless and peripatetic life in his village of Gost and elsewhere - military service, other countries and the Mediterranean sea coast, waiting jobs in restaurants, working on fishing boats and tourist liners. He is an avid reader.

One of Duro's skills is "reading" people, figuring out their motives and reactions.  Very defensive but mainly way to coming across as a very nice fellow.. Another is shooting. He is an excellent marksman, hunting wild game and, sadly, potting soldiers from the other side if the mountain.

     This is not a foodie novel. 

     We do not find regional recipes slathered on every other page. Food and drink are mentioned as multi-stranded threads in the story's fabric. There is, of course, the national beverage, rakija (aromatic plum brandy, for moments of affection or serious decisions)) as well as coffee, beer, "good red wine," and Johnny Walker whiskey and Stock 84 Brandy.

 Duro remarks at one point about a simple meal, "We ate pasta, tomatoes,local cured ham, good red wine in fine glasses."(p. 77).

     But it gets better: burek ( a meat pie wrapped in phyllo dough, known in its regional forms throughout the Balkans and Middle East), lasagna and pizza, meat paste sandwiches, fennel and rosemary, rujnika (pine forest mushrooms), venison, rabbits, quail and other game birds, and wild boar hunted by the villagers.  Sweet desserts like ice cream, cakes, a caramel pudding, pastries stuffed with fruit, cream and chocolate.

Croatian Dalmatian black risotto with octopus (Crni rizot)

But the best food passage in the novel concerns the local bread, as it should be in a country like Croatia, with its meadows that spread up to the hills, and then the ominously dark, forested areas and, beyond, mountains with dangerous ravines.
And bread takes on a certain metaphoric value.

Forna approaches it this way on page 225:

The family that owned the baker's shop sticks and are gone  The shop is closed. the hatch through which they used to sell devrek (bagels) and meat pies is sealed.
Yesterday's bread still sits on the shelves in the back.  Soon it is no longer yesterday's bread but three-day-old bread, last week's bread.  There is no explanation, no note on the door, just an old notice in faded  black felt tip stuck to the door which asks customers to make their orders for the next day by ten o'clock. Somebody crosses out the word hleb* and writes kruh.  Both of the words mean bread, but some people use one and some the other The ones who start leaving are the hlebs. So now there is only one baker shop in town This inconveniences everybody, and yet its also the way we want it (page 225).

Later, as people of the village are, one by one, rounded up and put into a gray van, Duro is stirred by the collapse and madness of a mail man who tried protecting lives by saving undelivered letters.  Duro remembers:

All the people to whom the names belong are people who worship at the Orthodox church; the priest's name is on one of the letters. People who use the word hleb for
bread. I bend down and pick up the letters. As many as I can. I force them into everyone of my pockets, and when they are full I gather an armful, run to the side of the bridge and throw them over the metal railing into the river. I have caught the man's madness and when I turn around I see him moving slowly away, with the air of a lost toddler (page 232). 

*hleb is the same as the Russian term for bread

A better and longer book review may be read at 

Andrew Blackman's 

Short films on Croatian culture may be found at 

Mushroom Power - Croatian - YouTube

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