James Baldwin once referred to love as a kind of war that forces you into growing up. In Aminatta Forna’s transcendent novel, love is just one kind of battle that leaves behind wounds. The other wars, physical and emotional, also lead to trauma that can extend to the heart.
The story revolves around three men and the women they love, set against the backdrop of contemporary Sierra Leone in the aftermath of civil war. In a landmark trial, Liberian leader Charles Taylor was just convicted in April 2012 for aiding and abetting war crimes during the civil war. More than ever, the questions of memory, reconciliation and healing come to the fore in Liberia and Sierra Leone – issues that Forna’s characters struggle with as well.
Kai, a surgeon, has repressed the horrific and cruel scenes he witnessed; his friend, Adrian, a British psychologist, places himself on the emotional frontlines, in hospitals and asylums filled with characters suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things. The ghosts of war torment psychologically damaged men like Adecali, a rebel soldier who set families and babies afire, and Elias Cole, a professor who seems to tell a transparent tale about the days before the war to Adrian.
Romantic love and tension hold the narrative together. It is assumed that these lovers may find their confidants but like on any battlefield, no one’s secrets are ever really safe. Cole is taken with the wife of his friend, Julius. Saffia, a delicate, distant woman, is not unlike Nenebah, or Mamakay, the mysterious woman at the center of these men’s tales.
When Forna writes about tenderness and intimacy, the detail is arresting. She extends her gift for intricacies, unfortunately, to the gritty realities of conflict and betrayal. Her sweet attention to affection is rendered down to the smallest creatures – lizards and ants – scurrying about beneath the feet of such noble, despicable and broken men, some bent on betrayal, others searching the sky for hope and the future promise of beauty.
Actual battle and reflections on war are intertwined in The Memory of Love. Adrian asks his lover, Mamakay about a specific act of violence. She replies:
“The government stole from their own people for decades. They’re still at it. Did people say anything? Did they protest? No. Their children dressed in rags and went hungry. Nobody stood up to those men. And yet a poor man would be lynched for stealing tomatoes…What were you told had happened here? Before you came, that is?...Ethnic violence? Tribal divisions? Blacks killing each other, senseless violence! Most of the people who write those things never leave their hotel rooms, they’re too afraid. And wouldn’t know the difference between a Mendeman and a Fulaman. But still they write the same story over and over. It’s easier that way. And who is there to contradict them?”
The implication in Mamakay’s words is one of denial by omission, the weight of silently witnessing. The powerlessness of victims of violence, all prisoners of war whether they claim that status or not, is in their silence. Some actively choose to forget by keeping quiet; others subconsciously blackout the searing pain of the memories. Still others try to create a green zone of comfort for their remaining passions. The war may rage on outside, but if they have intimate love, somewhere, by any means necessary, they could perhaps quiet the screams and dull the fiery recognition of mutilated bodies, broken teeth, blood-stained shirts and chairs.
In The Memory of Love, there is no refuge, not even in love. Even Kai or Adrian, who could at least hope for a clinician’s distance from the challenging realities of war cannot escape its long tentacles due to their interactions with a child or a mother,
“In the camp it seemed they faced more dangers than on the outward journey. In the forest, the dangers were from snakes, buffalo and rebel soldiers. In the camps there was hunger, typhoid and cold. But the greatest threat of all came from their own kind, gangs of men who searched the weak out from among the rest: those without family, women without menfolk…During the day, families came to collect the bodies of their daughters. Those girls without family remained where they lay.”
In a landscape so ravaged, it seems impossible to imagine a context for hope or belief in a future unmarred by such a dark past. The triumph of The Memory of Love is that it is a reminder that part of humanity is choosing love over battle, even when war appears inevitable.
It turns out that love is a simple declaration that life never ends without some kind of external or internal fight. Kai reflects on this when he is about to treat a woman who broke her hand on a window in rage that looked like it might have been a suicide attempt: “War had the effect of encouraging people to try to stay alive. Poverty, too. Survival was simply too hard-won to be given up lightly.”
So it is with love, and any remembrances of it in its truest form. Growing into love is its own battle; it matures the men and women in Forna’s novel in a haunting, unique way, the same as grief, death or destruction. Perhaps the greatest testament to Forna’s gift storytelling is that this revelation is not nearly as stunning or romantic as the narrative.