“Hunt or be hunted” is a truism in Duro Kolak's life and seems to apply to everyone and everything in his world. The reserved, 46-year-old Army veteran in the mountainous Croatian village of Gost is the narrator of The Hired Man and he describes the town the way one might describe him: as a place with a long, complex past. Gost means guest in English, but it is not a hospitable place for visitors. Despite the fact that this former part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is an artery for visitors, they are viewed as strangers. Duro tells the story of one summer in Aminatta Forna's third novel but he also tells the story of remembering a community through the lens of their post-war scars.
What is a typically sultry and slow time becomes a tense, harrowing season in The Hired Man. Bodies pass through the town, usually unnoticed. The visible become targets to be hunted and sometimes barely buried. For readers who want to know more about the deceptively treacherous landscape, Duro suggests a visit to the cemetery: "The graveyard is just like Gost, with rows of tombs instead of houses and paths in the place of streets. There are different neighbourhoods for the rich and the poor and for people who worship in one church and people who worship in another."
The novel begins with an expedition -- Duro and his two dogs happen upon a strange car belonging to Laura and her two children, who have moved into a house with a storied history that Duro keeps to himself. In Gost, houses are traditionally passed down through families, but the village has changed throughout Duro's life, and Laura represents that change. She has purchased the house the way strangers do -- through a private sale. Laura hires Duro to help restore the house, an act that is itself a metaphor for geography battered by war. Everyone in Gost knows this complicated history, but either they are resigned to reality as a complex territory one inhabits consciously or unconsciously, or they are gone.
Like the house and its former inhabitants, the local bar, and three men who remember Gost before conflict changed it, Duro is the main witness of tragedies. His antagonist, Krešimir, poses a metaphorical and real resistance to change and memory. Krešimir is the brother of Anka, Duro's underage lover, and he is a hateful character who pees on one of Duro's dogs. "Maybe hatred like that is bred in the bone," Duro wonders. "Or it maybe it belongs to some darker, more distant place."
The residents of the town once left only to return, maybe in an effort to repel hatred. As of Duro's testimony, that is no longer true. The unspoken truth of the town is that there should be no hostility even in the midst of the discomfiting transformation that Laura and her family represent. "Laura arrived and took over the blue house and things began to change. In a very short time, it seemed certain people forgot what had been agreed for so long, or perhaps they thought it no longer applied, or no longer applied to them, that the pact we had held to for sixteen years was somehow over," Forna writes.
Forna’s sparse storytelling of Gost and Duro mimics the patient pacing of a hunter. Between descriptions of his memories and dreams, Duro is in the forest with his dogs or in the house, helping Laura's curious daughter, Grace, unearth a defining mosaic of the house. He hunts animals first, but gradually and stoically, begins to hunt humans. The reader knows that Duro, like Gost, is multifaceted -- equally helpful and menacing, disciplined and weak-willed, particularly in love. He wants Laura, a desire disrupted by her distant husband. His unrequited affection makes him defensive and protective of the British family that is increasingly viewed with contempt.
Beneath the layers of this story is a quiet and persistent surrender: a mosaic of glass tiles revealing two hands stretched in the air. A hunter would see that target, point, and shoot. The hunted would despair at the final act, praying for mercy. Forna's readers see both vantage points distinctly as the story unfolds.
"When it comes," Duro says of his friendship with Krešimir, "the end is a small thing, as endings often are. You have to look back to spot them, to see where things changed for good, the before and the after."
In The Hired Man, Forna explores secrets with a kind of nostalgia that carries as much shame and anxiety as affection and relief. Like the casualties of Gost's conflict, the dead are buried, but only barely, before they are mercilessly exhumed by nature: foxes, vultures or time.
Even the lonely hunter Duro, who has lived on islands before and seems as broken by Gost as he is simultaneously hunted and buried by it, cannot keep himself away from its dangerous lull. His sweet love Anka is presumed dead. Someone asked why Duro doesn't find another place to live. If the hunter is hunted by grief, he doesn't show it. "Why should I?” Duro asks himself. “And anyway, where would I go? When you've seen it and you know nothing is going to change that, you get used to it, like the aftertaste of something rotten. You get used to it, because you have to. Gost is my home. I live here because it's what I want."
Joshunda Sanders has been a writer, journalist and poet for over a decade. Her writing has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Publishers Weekly, The Texas Observer, the Dallas Morning News, Bitch Magazine and many other publications. Her work has been widely anthologized in Seal Press anthologies like Secrets and Confidences: The Complicated Truth About Women’s Friendships, Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists, and Madonna and Me. She lives with her adorable dog, Cleo in Austin, TX and is working on her first book. She blogs at The Single Ladies and J. Victoria Sanders.