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review 2019-06-17 17:16
On Trauma and Healing (of Sorts)
The Memory of Love - Aminatta Forna
The Memory of Love - Kobna Holdbrook-Smith,Aminatta Forna

Sierra Leone gained independence from British colonial rule in 1961, but, like so many other African countries, after enjoying a few brief initial years of peace and democracy, it was torn apart by dictatorial rule, military regimes, civil war and corruption in the decades that followed.  As a result, surveys have shown that a staggering 99% of the population exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

This is the background against which the events in Aminatta Forna's novel The Memory of Love unfold.  Don't be fooled by the title: Yes, love in all of its shapes and forms is a driver of people's motivations here, but this book is about so much more -- it's a vast, virtually boundless tapestry of events, emotions, action and reaction, illness and health (mental and otherwise), war and peace, ambition, greed, selflessness, loss, beauty, ugliness ... and again and again, trauma; pathological, emotional and in every other respect you can imagine.

 

Forna unveils the enless layers of the novel's complex tapestry with a painstaking and almost painful slowness and care (as a result, it is virtually impossible to describe the plot without giving away major spoilers): The events, alternating between the late 1960s / early 1970s and the present day, are told from the point of view of three men -- Elias Cole, a former university professor lying on his deathbed in a Freetown hospital and telling his story to Adrian Lockheart, an English psychologist who has come to Sierra Leone with an international aid organization but has decided to stay on and help since he specializes in PTSD, and Kai Mansaray, a surgeon at the hospital where Elias is wheezing his way back through his life for Adrian's benefit (and his own -- or so Adrian hopes).  Though strangers initially, over the course of the novel it becomes clear that the three men not only establish a relationship in the here and now but that what connects them goes deeper and has roots in the past; their own as much as the country's.  At the same time, through the PTSD sufferers that Adrian treats at a nearby mental hospital (not the general clinic that ties him to Elias and Kai but a different place), through his and Kai's friends and colleagues, and through Elias's narrative and the men and women inhabiting it, in turn, Sierra Leone itself and its people collectively become a further main character to the novel -- the one that, ultimately, is the most important one of all and which drives every action and event; a huge, many-limbed, monstrously traumatized and brutalized organism that can't help but swallow its own constituent organs -- its own people -- and those whom it does eventually spit out again after all will be changed forever.

 

It took me a while to get into this book, and this is not the kind of novel that you can race through in a day or two (or at least, I can't).  But this definitely is one of my reading highlights of this year -- and this reaview wouldn't be complete without me giving my due and hartfelt plaudits to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, whose unmatched, deeply empathetic narration lifted an already profound, complex and harrowing reading experience onto yet another level entirely.  Highly, highly recommended.

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text 2019-06-16 19:53
Reading progress update: I've read 100%.
The Memory of Love - Kobna Holdbrook-Smith,Aminatta Forna

Wow.  What a book -- definitely one of the highlights of this year; and I'm glad I took a whole week to finish it.  Nothing short of spectacular -- as is Kobna Holdbrook Smith's narration.

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text 2019-05-30 17:47
Reading progress update: I've read 100%.
Interventions: A Life in War and Peace - Kofi Annan,Dominic Hoffman

Review to follow -- if I can stop myself from quoting half the book.  Gotta sort my thoughts first.

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text 2019-05-28 20:24
Reading progress update: I've listened to 20%.
Interventions: A Life in War and Peace - Kofi Annan,Dominic Hoffman

@Elentarri and Ani: 

 

A great summary of the background of (inter alia) the background of the Rwanda and Bosnia genocides, as well as a fascinating inside view of those conflicts from the POV of the U.N. in chapter 2, and ditto on Kosovo in chapter 3 -- great follow-up reading to Clea Koff's Bone Woman!

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text 2019-02-06 18:41
Reading progress update: I've read 47 out of 592 pages.
Die Menschheit hat den Verstand verloren: Tageb├╝cher 1939-1945 - Astrid Lindgren,Angelika Kutsch,Gabriele Haefs

Sound familiar?

"1940

9 FEBRUARY. What a world, what an existence! Reading the papers is a depressing pastime. Bombs and machine guns hounding women and children in Finland, the oceans full of mines and submarines, neutral sailors dying, or at best being rescued in the nick of time after days and nights of privation on some wretched raft, the behind-the-scenes tragedy of the Polish population (nobody’s supposed to know what’s happening, but some things get into the papers anyway), special sections on trams for “the German master race,” the Poles not allowed out after 8 in the evening, and so on. The Germans talk about their “harsh but just treatment” of the Poles -- so then we know. What hatred it will generate! In the end the world will be so full of hate that it chokes us."

And that's just for starters -- we haven't even gotten to the concentration camps yet, though there has already been much suffering; chiefly in Finland and Poland.

 

I'm reading the book in German; source of the English excerpt quoted above HERE.  Highly recommended, both the book as a whole and (as a taster) the verbatim excerpts provided on HistoryNet and in the Telegraph review.  Lindgren was an astute observer and analyst; she did not miss a single important event and development, and she uncannily distills them down to their essential importance.  E.g., here's the beginning of her final entry, on New Year's Eve 1945 (which I haven't gotten to yet, of course, but which you'll see if you read the excerpts on HistoryNet or in the Telegraph review, and which is referenced verbatim in the introduction of this book -- at least in the German version):

"Nineteen forty-five brought two remarkable things. Peace after the Second World War and the atom bomb. I wonder what the future will have to say about the atom bomb, and whether it will mark a whole new era in human existence, or not. Peace doesn't offer much hope of sanctuary, overshadowed as it is by the atom bomb."*

Almost 50 years of post-WWII world history, acutely foretold in three concise sentences.  What a remarkable woman.

________________________

 

* Final sentence my own translation; not contained in the excerpts made available online.

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