The Hired Man and Moral Choice

the hired man

I forgot to tell you that I will also talk about books in this blog, because I love books and they make up a lot of who I am.  So I want to tell you about a book I just finished last night, Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, which came out late in 2013.  I read a lot of old books, as you can tell from my affinity for Anthony Trollope, but I’m happy to say that I also find new books that are just as important – Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss comes to mind, or anything by Hilary Mantel.  Yes, there is still good literary fiction being written!

The Hired Man is set in Croatia, the present day or close to it, and tells the story of Duro, a native of a small Croatian town called Gost.  He works for and befriends an English woman and her two children who have bought a summer house in Gost, and who, unbeknownst to them, stir up painful memories for both Duro and the town folk.  It’s about friendship, and the souring of friendship, and about outsiders and what happens to them.  It’s about war and its aftermath, and about the choices we make in our lives when faced with adversity.  It’s  beautiful, haunting, devastating.

Laura, the Englishwoman in the story, has a dream to buy up houses all over this area of Croatia; to restore them and beautify them just as Duro is doing for her summer house.  Then she’ll sell them to English people or other foreigners as summer houses for a profit.  She invites Duro to be a business partner, and Duro is partly pleased, but mostly nauseated by such a plan.  Laura is ignorant of the area’s dark history and seems to breeze through life like nothing can touch her.  It’s not that Duro wants Laura to be aware of what happened in this place (in fact he goes out of his way to hide it from her) and for that to stop her from carrying out her plan; I think it’s more that Duro doesn’t want the past covered up and forgotten.

Naturally I was entranced by this story because it plays into one of my on-going rants (the world is not our oyster) and raises hard moral questions for me.  Does Laura, or anyone like Laura (and I think there are a lot of people like this) have a right to march into Croatia and live as if nothing horrible happened there?  Does “moving on”  necessarily mean forgetting?

After talking about this with my dad, he asked me if I would like to visit Croatia.  I had to admit that it sounded marvelous.  The pictures on Google are beautiful, of course.  But do I have a right to go to a place with such a poisonous recent history?  Could I enjoy myself?

Did I have a right to work in Saudi Arabia, a place with plenty of its own atrocities?

This may seem silly, because wherever you go there have been plenty of atrocities throughout history, and even recent history.  But I really struggle with this question.

My mom once said she likes to travel, but that she doesn’t want to go anywhere with a lot of poverty.  I balked at this when she first said it, but there might be some sense in what she says.  On the other hand, there is plenty of poverty right here in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana.  There is plenty of poverty in places that my parents do visit, like Chicago or New York.

But then I worry that I’m turning into a moral absolutist, and I don’t think I want to be that.  Places, and people, after all, are many things.

I’d really be interested in anything my readers have to say on this matter.  How should we live with the memory of tragedy?  Where should we go?

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