Some pens are propelled by politics. They revel in it, punctuate their plot with it, and in doing so parenthesize and contain some of its perceived power. Such politically charged novels can subtly guide a reader’s perception of public events till it coincides with the novel’s own projection. Consider Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, that passionate poem to Biafra.
Other writers find themselves fettered by the binds and bounds of identity, unable to unshackle their theme from themselves. Aminatta Forna’s lovely, languorous prose in The Memory of Love doesn’t have the kernel of agitprop necessary to write war. Yet she feels that write it she must. The comparison to Adichie may be insensitive—West African conflict is the milieu for both books and Forna was shortlisted for this year’s Orange prize, which Adichie won in 2007—but it is apt.
Forna’s novel is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the recent past. The shores of the capital are awash with aid workers in the wake of a grisly 11-year civil war. Among them is Adrian Lockheart, a British psychologist of some repute who is seeking, as per usual, meaning in mid-life. His skills are not in high demand with the average Sierra Leone patient who seeks, instead, fast-action medication. Kai Mansaray, a young general surgeon at the same hospital, is much busier than Adrian but manages to fit in a fragile friendship with the foreigner. The only other relief in the torpor of Adrian’s days is his weekly session with the retired professor, Elias Cole.
The Memory of Love: Penguin/Bloomsbury, 464 pages, Rs 399.
The Memory of Love is preoccupied with weighing the crimes of silence and complicity. Did Elias Cole betray his friend by holding his peace? Encompassing that question, did the developed world betray Sierra Leone by withholding its peacekeepers? And shadowing that in the sub-text, do the people of Sierra Leone betray themselves by not talking through their trauma? Despite judging each guilty in different degrees, the novel itself is strangely silent on the specifics of the conflict. It is as if the reader too is deemed culpable if unfamiliar with the particulars of the civil war.
Forna justifies her elision through the structure of her story. By enveloping the war within three narrative arcs, she creates a funnelling spiral, which pulls most of the action to the end. That the three storylines will intertwine can be gleaned from the first page. Adrian “is new here”, with a tenuous toehold in post-conflict territory. The elderly Elias is determinedly coughing and spluttering his way through a reworked personal pre-war history, to be punctiliously transcribed by Adrian in clinical notes. And Kai, who suffers unexplained nightmares and debilitating insomnia, is presumably still mired in combat.
Linking disparate stories for a delayed denouement is a format popular in film, but an almost 450-page novel cannot sustain that sort of suspense. The broad, lazy, beguiling narrative threads of the beginning tighten into a gnarly, bathetic knot by the end.
The reason one rails against the lacunae in Forna’s plotting is that though the larger picture is incoherent, certain vignettes sparkle with pointillist detail. Consider the complexity compressed in this interracial conversation: “(Adrian) laughs. ‘But you know what I mean.’ Kai does not know what he means. Still, he chooses not to say. This is the way Europeans talk, as though everybody shared their experiences.”
Or a counterpoint presented via Adrian: “And because he is trying not to show how discomfited he is by Kai’s lack of niceties and because the notion that a conversation is a continuous act is bred into his bones and silences like nudity should be covered up lest they offend.”
Though these instances are not contiguous in the novel, they have a deep and deliberate link. The syntax of Kai’s construction reveals not only a relative cultural nonchalance to speech, but also the terse thought process of a busy man. The multiple clauses in Adrian’s thought indicate a predilection for layered language but also hint at the many justifications he must continually find for his own presence in this country. It is a sophisticated working by which the characters grow to be representative, yet stay true to themselves.
Forna is able to weave this little bit of magic through many of the personal, intimate moments of the book. Yet the promise of her writing is ultimately thwarted by the premise of her book.
If only all flawed novels were this rewarding to read.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org