It’s been an auspicious if somewhat ambiguous month for marriage equality in the United States. On Oct.
The Prairie Schooner Blog
Vol. 3 Issue 6. October 9, 2014. Ed. Paul Clark.
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna Reviewed by Linda Downing Miller
Wittgenstein’s Nephew: A Friendship by Thomas Bernhard | Reviewed by Lindsey Drager
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman | Reviewed by Ellen Birkett Morris
Aminatta Forna. The Hired Man. Atlantic Monthly Press (first published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc), 2013.
With a soft, sure first-person voice and sense of quiet threat, The Hired Man draws in the reader from page one. The narrator, 46-year-old Duro Kolak, begins: “Laura came to Gost in the last week of July. I was the first to see her the morning she drove into town.” Duro spots Laura’s car as he’s trailing a bird through his rifle sights. Anything could happen, from sudden love to violence, and the novel proceeds to offer both in unexpected ways.
Forna writes descriptive and penetrating prose that does an excellent job moving the story along. We meet other residents of Gost, a village in Croatia, with the wary intimacy Duro has with them: “Fabjan’s gums are receding at the same rate as his hair, one of his front teeth is broken. I knew how he’d broken it and when; in all that time he’d never had it fixed.”
The “chill of unfinished business” between Duro and other long-time residents lurks at the heart of The Hired Man. Krešimir, a childhood friend turned “old adversary,” sets new events in motion and churns old memories by selling his long-vacant childhood home as a vacation property to a British couple: Laura and her husband, mostly away on business. As Duro becomes Laura’s trusted hired man, performing needed repairs on the house and even drawing her two children out of different states of isolation, he walks another awkward line of intimacy.
The Hired Man delivers a gripping, singular history amid the murky context of civil war in the former Yugoslavia. We are left to mull the strangeness of human behavior and the impact of each individual on the larger community—one action, one work day, at a time.
Thomas Bernhard. Wittgenstein’s Nephew: A Friendship. 1982. Translated from the German by David McLintock. Vintage, 1989.
In this study of the relationship between disease and friendship, Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard works in the tradition of the illness narrative, with a particular focus on the oscillation that characterizes disorder—identifying symptoms, enduring diagnosis and treatment, laboring toward heal, and then coping with the inevitable relapse (the chronic of the chronically ill). Here this lived process is translated into narrative mode, and the novel’s arrested progress suggests the story itself is sick; it is fatigued and queasy and ruminates in the stasis Bernhard describes is required of recovery. But this vortex of iteration is also a coping mechanism against the act of philosophizing oneself to death:
Paul’s mind quite simply exploded because he could not discard his intellectual fortune fast enough. In the same way Nietzsche’s mind exploded, just as all the other mad philosophical minds exploded, because they could no longer sustain the pace. Their intellectual fortune builds up at a faster and fiercer rate than they can discard it, then one day the mind explodes and they are dead. (23)
In a sense, the creeping pace of the novel can be understood as a desire to register rather than analyze experience, but the gesture is in vain, for readers are consistently mining the space between to disclose the implied. Indeed, even the “friendship” of the subtitle requires interrogation, as the relationship Bernhard describes balances on the precipice of painful but required reciprocity rather than fulfilling union. It is a “friendship” wrought with contradictions and tensions, a friendship that is in fact so threatening to the health of both the characters and the narrative itself that it must end in divorce. In this way, the alliance between Bernhard and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s nephew, Paul, creates its own kind of parasite/host dynamic, and the book ultimately devolves into an exercise in survival, reminding us that even the closest friendships demand distance. And therein lies the danger:
I had met Paul, as I now see, precisely at the time when he was obviously beginning to die, and as these notes testify, I had traced his dying over a period of more than twelve years. And I had used Paul’s dying for my own advantage, exploiting it for all I was worth. (99)
Perhaps this means Bernhard is a bad friend; perhaps this means he is a good artist. The underlying lesson is that when we situate any two next to each other, we are also situating them against. If in fact the narrative itself is ill, Wittenstein’s Nephew leaves us wondering what a healthy story looks like, and asks us whether we’d want to listen.
Ayelet Waldman. Love & Treasure. Knopf, 2014.
Ayelet Waldman, best known for her essays on motherhood, the “mommy track” mystery series and novels like Red Hook Road, stakes out new ground in her book Love & Treasure, an intricate story told in triptych format that centers on a necklace found on the Hungarian Gold Train during World War II.
The story is populated by interesting characters: Jack Wiseman, a Jewish lieutenant in the U.S. Army who ends up pocketing an elaborate pendant that came from an unrequited love’s hometown; Amitai Shasho, a present-day Israeli art dealer who tracks down artworks and returns them (for a price) to the descendants of their former owners; and Wiseman’s granddaughter Natalie, who becomes embroiled in a search for the descendants of the original owner of the pedant.
Love & Treasure depicts the complexity of the Jewish identity and offers a glimpse of the cultural life that was destroyed by the Holocaust. It is a book that spans generations and, as Wiseman says of the pendant’s journey, explores the “complex legacy of memory and forgetting.”
Linda Downing Miller studied fiction writing at Queens University of Charlotte and earned her MFA in January 2014. Her creative nonfiction has aired on Chicago Public Radio and appeared in the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois, where she also works as a freelance writer and editor. Lindsey Drager is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver where she edits the Denver Quarterly. A novel, The Sorrow Proper, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books in 2015. Ellen Birkett Morris is a writer who lives in Louisville. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, and South Carolina Review. She is the author of Surrender, a poetry chapbook, and holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Queens University Charlotte.