Ifanyone requires proof of how profoundly this world has changed in the lastsixty or seventy years, the city of Freetown in Sierra Leone might serve as aprime exhibit. Novelist Graham Greene was posted there as a Britishintelligence agent during World War II, and his famous descriptions in The Heart of the Matter (1948) branded it unforgettably on his readers’imaginations as a sleepy colonial backwater dominated by bored Britishfunctionaries. The country itself, “the soupsweet land,” Greeneportrayed as a place of benighted but real beauty.
Contrast this atmospherewith that of contemporary Freetown as depicted in Aminatta Forna’s fine newnovel The Memory of Love. The capital is now a massive city full of decayedcolonial infrastructure and burgeoning shantytowns. Still trying to recoverfrom a long civil war of unprecedented brutality (1991-2002), Freetown’sdenizens attempt to rebuild lives that appear to have been shattered beyondrepair. Now things are once again peaceful on the surface, but rememberedhorrors cannot be suppressed. And as with most wars, the survivors have to facenot only the physical and mental injuries that have been inflicted on them butthose they have inflicted, either passively or with malice, on others. A novellike this makes one understand just how trite the concept of “reconciliation,”that word so freely bandied about by politicians, can be. The wounds, in somany cases, are too deep for a simple resolution.
It is not the first timeForna has delved into such issues: her first book, The Devil That Danced On the Water (2002), explored the execution on trumped-upcharges of her father, a Sierra Leonean cabinet minister and politicalactivist, when she was only eleven—events shrouded in mystery and fearthroughout her childhood. By that time her parents had split up and she and herScottish mother had moved to Britain, where Forna was educated; she eventuallytook a job in television broadcasting at the BBC. But she has maintained astrong connection with her natal country and paternal family, and continues totake part in family business and philanthropic ventures.
The Devil That Danced On the Water created a sensation in Sierra Leone, where thenumerous “disappearings” and political murders that had taken placein the early years of Siaka Stevens’s premiership were still forbidden subjects.Mohamed Forna, Aminatta’s father, was part of a hopeful and progressivegeneration of young Africans, in the first decade after independence, who wentto Europe or America for their studies and returned home to assume leadershippositions in the new nations. Their idealism was soon dashed as one Africancountry after another succumbed to cruel and exploitative dictators.
With The Memory of Love Forna shifts herfocus from brave men like her father, willing to pay for their ideals withtheir lives, to their opposites: the men who survive and thrive by colludingwith evil. It is 2003 and Elias Cole, an elderly university administrator, isslowly dying of pulmonary disease. As he fades from life he narrates hismemories of the past forty years to Adrian, an English psychologist. At firstElias’s tale seems straightforward enough: he describes the ferment andpolitical passions of the Sixties, his firebrand friend Julius, his secret lovefor Julius’s wife Saffia, Julius’s arrest and death in prison, and his ownsubsequent marriage to Saffia. But as the story progresses we realize thatElias is a perfect example of that literary archetype so hard for authors topull off: the unreliable narrator. His version of events is a complex edificeof self-justification and lies of omission. Julius, the brave and joyful man,is dead, while cowardly Elias has lived on for joyless decades.
But these are distantmemories; it is the more recent past that has blighted the new generation. Accordingto one estimate, by the end of the civil war ninety percent of Sierra Leoneanswere suffering from what the medical profession defines as Post-TraumaticStress Disorder. When there is trauma on this scale, can it even be describedas pathological or is it, quite simply, life? How can a whole population “recover”?Can the nation ever move on? Adrian, an English psychologist who has come outto Freetown to volunteer his help, finds himself dealing with apparentlyhopeless cases. There is Agnes, for instance, who finds her long-lost daughteronly to discover that the young woman is now married to the sadistic officerwho murdered her other child. There is Adecali, a pathetic man so tortured bythe atrocities he committed as a member of the rebel army that he has landed ina mental hospital. And there is Kai, a young surgeon who becomes Adrian’sclosest friend: what Kai has undergone does not bear thinking about, and cannotbe told even to Adrian.
And anyway Adrian himself,for all his fine intentions, is a suspect character to these haunted citizens,for in postwar Freetown aid workers like Adrian have assumed the places vacatedby Greene’s parasitic colonials: they buzz around town in air-conditioned cars,live luxuriously, with staffs of servants, and generally behave as though theyown the place and its inhabitants. Adrian is not of their ilk, but it is truethat altruism is not his only reason for being in Sierra Leone: as Kai easilyintuits, Adrian is there to escape his old life as well as to embrace a newone.
The Memory of Love is philosophically a rather complex novel, andForna has wisely opted to present her material at a leisurely, measured pace. Theslow movement suits the atmosphere she is attempting to transmit—for despiteall the changes that have overtaken the country, Forna’s Sierra Leone is stillrecognizably Greene’s soupsweet land:
Inthis country there is no dawn. No spring or autumn. Nature is an abrupttimekeeper. About daybreak there is nothing in the least ambiguous, it is darkor it is light, with barely a sliver in between. Adrian wakes to the light. Theair is heavy and carries the faint odour of mould, like a cricket pavilionentered for the first time in the season. It is always there, stronger in themorning and on some days more than others. It pervades everything, the bedsheets, towels, his clothes. Dust and mould.
As this passage indicates,the author’s visceral appreciation of her troubled country is evident on everypage of The Memory of Love. So, too,is her probing intelligence—and her compassion.