The Memory of Love
The Memory of Love
From time to time one comes across a turn of phrase, a descriptive passage, a metaphor so apt that it rings like lead crystal. Forna doesn't write that way. She threads her stories like music, imperceptibly into the reader's consciousness. One is left hauntingly familiar with the distant and alien; not quite able to distinguish the emotional spirits of fiction from the scars of real experience.
The setting is exotic—Sierra Leone in early postwar recovery. Elias Cole lies in a hospital bed dying. Cultured and eloquent, he now finds a facility for honesty that had eluded him for most of a life of compromise and unexceptional, but ultimately tragic, betrayal. He hasn't been a bad man. He has been an ordinary man who failed to rise to the challenge of the extraordinary times that crowded in on him. An academic, he fell in love with a glamorous colleague's glamorous wife at a time when Africa was blooming with post-independence possibilities, and men were landing on the Moon. Now he chooses to tell a well-meaning and somewhat lost English psychiatrist, Adrian, of how the hope of that age came to have been snuffed out. But, like the ghost of an amputated limb, the recollection of hope lingers.
There will be inevitable comparisons made between The Memory of Love and Chinua Achebe's dystopic Things Fall Apart because, well, things do fall apart—while at the same time Cole flourishes on the betrayal that won him the enigmatic hand of the glamorous Saffia. There are echoes, too, of Graham Greene's own tale of cowardice, Catholic guilt and betrayal, which is also set in Sierra Leone, The Heart of the Matter. But, whereas these masterpieces were set in time and space, Forna's latest novel transcends both by sweeping through from the campus hothouses of the 1960s to a shabby and traumatised today. Time has changed and the space has been burnt, blood-soaked, washed down and whitewashed. In the present we find Kai Mansaray, a young surgeon whose best friend has emigrated to America. He survived the massacres of the civil war by saving lives in his hospital and through good fortune. Now he cannot seem to do the sensible thing and leave too. Instead he paces out his insomnia in Adrian's flat.
Like old man Cole he, too, can remember halcyon days before the war. He can remember loving Nenebah and picnicking in the hills above the university, where the two of them gave names to hordes of baby ants. Perhaps he loves the memory of it.
Adrian, who left a wife and children in England to "help" in Africa, is out of his depth. Through Cole he comes to understand that the roots of the civil war grew in the soil of authoritarianism decades ago (which Cole, the aging academic, embraced as a young man in return for promotion). But he has underestimated the scale of the trauma that civil war can leave behind. How do you counsel a nation?
A chance encounter with Agnes, who goes on to become his patient and who suffers from a compulsion to walk enormous distances, but has no recollection of her journeys, exposes him to the cosmic horror of what went on. She is his redemption, she gives him a focus, a sense that through her he might have a "right" to even be there. As he grows in confidence and relaxes into Forna's beautifully drawn landscape of Freetown bars, cafés and dusty, clogged streets, he falls for Mamakay—not knowing of her connection to either Kai or Cole but gently celebrating the luxury of loving someone.
Forna's characters weave in and out of each other's lives, often with entirely unforeseeable and shocking consequences. They are so well drawn, and so universally authentic, that each time the narrative view switches from one to the other one almost longs for a convenient two dimensional caricature as light relief from possession. With whom can the reader most easily identify? Adrian, the English ingénu? Kai, the heroic surgeon who cannot see the green grass in the other field? Cole, the sell-out? Or Agnes—whose mind has quite rightly opted to walk rather than think about what she must endure?
Forna's intense research into surgery and psychiatry is as lightly worn as her ability to hide her own craft as a writer. Whether the reader is picking through hospital corridors sour and foul with blood and sweat, or blushing at the invisible smirk hidden by local doctors from the visiting Englishman, the stitching is invisible.
Forna's memoir The Devil Who Danced on the Water deals with the harrowing fact of the execution of her father, Dr Mohammed Forna, a leading opposition politician in Sierra Leone. Her first novel, Ancestor Stones, explored the magical capacity of women to survive the worst that mankind can throw at wives, children and daughters. Her latest work, although haunted by real events far away, explores the universal agony of choice. Head or heart? Friend or self? Let us hope that it takes its place where it deserves to be: not at the top of the pile of "African Literature" but outside any category altogether—and at the top of award shortlists.
You might also like this: