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Review: 'The Memory of Love'. War, trauma & lying

“The Memory of Love” by Aminatta Forna“The Memory of Love” by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury, London, 2010) is a superb novel about love, betrayal, war-time atrocities that traumatize people into silence, and “the silent lie” that re-writes personal and national histories. The novel is set in impoverished Sierra Leone today but is informed by awful civil war events over the last 3 decades.

The title derives from the intensity of remembered love of key character surgeon, Dr Kai Mansaray that the author compares to the remembrance of pain of an amputated limb: “the aching ghost of a hewn hand or foot… The pain is real, yes, but it is a memory of pain. And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, and the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, bur a memory of love”.

Before summarizing the story (without spoiling the story of course), a succinct summary of the history of Sierra Leone is useful (from Chapter 7, “Non-Arab Africa – colonialism, neo-colonialism, militarism, debt, economic constraint and incompetence” of my book “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, now available for free perusal on the Web ) : pre-colonial coastal Temne people; 1460, Portuguese arrival; 15th century, Portuguese incursions; 16th century, Mande migration from Liberia; 16th-19th century, timber, ivory and slaves; 1787, 1792, attempts at free slave settlement at Freetown on land purchased from the Temne; 1807, British abolition of slavery; run-away slaves and the abolition of slavery in London led to Granville Sharp land purchase, colonization by Britain and takeover from the Sierra Leone company running Freetown; 19th century, 50,000 freed slaves settled; interior resistance to British rule; 1827, Fourah Bay College founded; 1896, British protectorate proclaimed over the interior; 1897, final British victory over indigenous resistance; post-war, palm oil, peanuts, diamonds and iron ore; 1960, autonomy with pro-British interim government; 1961, independence under conservative Mende Sir Milton Margai representing Creole, British and Syrian-Lebanese merchant interests; 1954, Albert Margai succeeded brother; 1967, elections won by Temne Stevens overturned by coup; 1968, coup re-installed Stevens; 1971-1973, Guinean troops to support Stevens; one-party rule; 1986, Momoh replaced Stevens; 1991, commencement of Liberian-backed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel attacks; 1990s, rebel violence, coups, civil war and international intervention; 1992, Strasser military coup; 1996, Bio coup; 1996, Kabbah elected; cease-fire with rebels; 1997, Koroma coup; UN sanctions; Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS) sent Nigerian-led forces; 1998, Kabbah restored; continued violence; 1999, peace accord with RUF leader Sankoh; continued violence; UN peace-keepers (eventually 13,000); 2000, UN forces held hostage by rebels; British forces involved; ban on rebel-funding diamond sales; 2001, sanctions on Liberia; rebel and pro-government militia disarmament (1991-2001 excess mortality 1.1 million); 2002, elections; Kabbah re-elected; 2003, UN diamond ban lifted; 70,000 rebels and militias disarmed; 2004, 8,000 UN peacekeepers remained. Foreign occupation: Britain (pre-1950); Britain (post-1950); post-1950 foreign military presence: UK, Guinea, UN peacekeepers (Nigeria, UK); post-1950 excess mortality/2005 population = 4.548m/5.340m = 85.2%; post-1950 under-5 infant mortality/2005 population = 2.846m/5.340m = 53.3%. These latter excess death statistics indicate that for every citizen alive in 2005 roughly 1 person had died avoidably in the previous 55 years from gross deprivation, this horrible reality being corroborated by the corresponding infant mortality data.  

In this story set in Sierra Leone today, Dr Adrian Lockheart is an English psychologist with a wife Lisa and child Kate back in England. After an initial stint in Sierra Leone, Adrian has volunteered again to work in the hospital of the capital city but only acquires one regular patient, Elias Cole, an elderly academic, whose account of his academic life over the previous 3 decades of war and peace is central to the book. Elias describes his love 30 years before for botanist Saffia, the beautiful, dignified and passionately devoted wife of gregarious academic and political activist Dr Julius Kamara, an academic engineer whose circle includes fellow activists Kekura Conteh and Ade Yansaneh. Saffia is contemplating finishing her PhD. Elias has a steady girl friend Vanessa but their relationship cools as Elias pursues his secret obsession with Saffia. Elias describes his elaborate schemes to meet up with Saffia. Elias, Saffia and Julius become social friends and Julius frequently pops into fellow academic Elias’ office and indeed uses his office, there being a shortage of office space on campus. This part of the novel is charming, amusing and perceptive.

Adrian is concerned about his lack of patients and has occasion to widen his work when he takes a boy patient to the mental hospital headed by the eminent and severe Dr Attila. Adrian recognizes the importance of war trauma (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD) in patients who have experienced traumatic life-endangering experiences. He is befriended by another  expatriate, mental hospital  second in charge psychologist Dr Ileanna  (Ileanna escaped Ceaucescu Romania by finding a Jewish step-grandmother in her ancestry and was thence able, unlike 10 million excluded Indigenous Palestinians,  to travel to and live in Israel i.e. in a Palestine now completely occupied by Israel).

Adrian has encountered a disturbed woman Agnes in the market and begins to treat her and other patients at the mental hospital with the help of head nurse Salia. Adrian comes to realize that Agnes is in a state of fugue in which she has escaped from profound trauma into another mental state. Agnes has borne 5 children of whom only the 3 girls survived, the 2 boys having “returned” (died).  However Agnes disappears and Adrian wants to find her to resume treatment and explore his diagnosis. Around this time badly over-worked surgeon Dr Kai Mansaray “crashes” at Adrian’s hospital accommodation and they become friends. Kai is single but had a deep relationship with a girl called Nenebah that fell apart after the traumas of the rebel occupation of the city. Kai writes to his doctor friend Tejani who lives in the US but was a great friend of Kai and Nenebah before he left. Kai would like to go to the US, having almost no family left except for a female cousin and her son Abbas. Adrian notices a girl who accompanies Elias’ servant Babagaleh to the hospital. He later befriends this young woman who is a clarinet player with a band.

Elias’ story comes to a climax with a big party hosted by Saffia and Julius to celebrate the Neil Armstrong being the first man on the moon (21 July 1969). Elias takes a bar girl to the party, gets very drunk and violently accosts a man who has taken her out into the garden. Elias goes home but in the morning it is revealed that Julius has been arrested by plain clothes police. Julius’ friend Kekura escaped capture but Yansaneh is arrested and released after he mentions meetings in Elias’ room. Elias comforts Saffia but is arrested himself. The university Dean who had tried to get Elias to spy on students and others appears and persuades Elias to cooperate with the authorities.  Elias, fearful after polite but menacing interrogation by police officer Johnson, does so, handing over his diaries that record his social life with Julius and his friends. It later transpires that Julius, an asthmatic, has died of an asthma attack. Out of fear of stirring up more trouble, neither Elias nor Saffia had gone to warn the authorities of Julius’ condition – his inhaler is subsequently found among his belongings. Elias eventually marries the widowed Saffia, the woman he adores, but she is intrinsically still deeply attached to her dead husband. Four years into the marriage, Elias takes back Vanessa as a mistress.  Nevertheless Saffia and Elias have a child, Mamakay, who, over 20 years later and shortly after the tragic death of Saffia in a car accident, becomes detached from her father when she realizes that he has spied on activist students when he forces her to eschew a campus protest that is violently suppressed by the police. Saffia has implicitly indicated to Mamakay her lack of trust in Elias (Johnson is a visitor to Elias at their home) and Mamakay is well aware of Elias’ relationship with Vanessa.  

Back to circa 2009, Kai takes his young “nephew” Abbas (son of his cousin) and Adrian for a trip to a waterfall in the country. Abbas’ father was a government solider who died on duty. On the way back they stop at Port Loko for fuel and Adrian spots Agnes and follow her to her house where she lives with her daughter Naasu and her husband. Adrian fails in his plea to Agnes to return and continue the treatment .The husband offers to take Adrian back to his friends but savagely beats him to unconsciousness in an alley.

After this, the traumas underlying the key characters are revealed. Kai travels to Port Loko and discovers from neighbours that Agnes has lost her husband and her daughters Yalie and Marian (but not the eldest Naasu) to rebel atrocities. However her trauma is worsened because her daughter Naasu has unwittingly married the rebel leader JaJa responsible for these and other atrocities. We discover that Kai (troubled by a shaking hand that he must still by meditation before surgery) has had an awful experience of being kidnapped from the hospital with a nurse Balia. Balia is pack raped and then shot when she lunges to protect Kai, who has been ordered to rape her. Unloaded on a key bridge, Kai falls off with the dead body of Balia to the water below. Meanwhile Mamakay has fallen pregnant to Adrian … but I won’t spoil the rest of the story.

The novel deals with love, the obsessive love for Elias for Saffia, Saffia’s devoted love for Julius, and Kai’s painful “memory of love” for Nenebah. However one is also struck by the love of Humanity exhibited in various ways by the medical characters. Thus Kai and an expatriate surgeon Dr Seligmann from Canada make space is their busy surgical schedule to systematically do lengthy orthopaedic surgery on a patient Foday, born with a gross deformity, so that he will eventually be able to walk, marry, and have a normal life – surely a metaphor for national reconstruction.

The book also deals with widespread trauma from life-threatening atrocities that are exhibited by a range of characters including former rebel and now mental patient Adecali (who participated in atrocities). Kai, Agnes and indeed everyone who went through fear and loss associated with the civil war. A shocking assertion is of very few suicides because the survivors are so thankful to be alive. Even in the newly found peace of circa 2009 thongs are pretty grim – a patient who has survived an industrial accident bit with spinal damage is doomed because his family will simply not have the resources to care for him and prevent the pressure sources that will eventually kill him.  

However a fundamental theme is how people accommodated to traumatic history, their survival and their part in the events. Adrian has discovered with his patients Agnes and Adecali how facing up to the Awful Truth can lead towards recovery from deep trauma. However that process can be perverted through self-deception and deception of the listener. Thus Elias survived and was promoted after his successive betrayals of Julius to Johnson in 1969 and of his daughter’s friends to Johnson over 20 years later. However Elias, while confessing to Adrian, clings to the notion that Julius had betrayed him by not revealing what he was up to (Julius’ friend Kekura Conte has been involved in an attempt to blow up a bridge but ends up as an academic in America; Yansaneh, who cooperated and was released ends up as an academic in Sierra Leone). Elias rationalizes his later actions as protecting his daughter.

This novel is powerful because of the exploration of the characters and for inherently posing hard questions for the reader: how would you have behaved, how would you have survived, what would you have done to survive? These moral issues and how people hide or re-invent their past comes to ahead after Adrian: comments on the courage of the survivors: and Mamakay passionately replies: “Courage is not what it took to survive. Quite the opposite! You had to be a coward to survive. To make sure you never raised your head above the parapet, never questioned, never said anything that might get you into trouble … Who was it who said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it?” [Winston Churchill] … He’s [Elias] using you to write his own version of history, don’t you see? And it’s happening all over the country. People are blotting out what happened, fiddling with the truth, creating their own version of events to fill in the blanks... A version of the truth that puts them, in a good light … And they’re all doing it. Whatever you say, you will go away from here, and you will publish your papers and give talks, and every time you do you will make their version of events the more real, until it becomes indelible”. Aminatta Forna concludes this exchange thus: “And in Mamakay’s words Adrian hears the echo of his own thoughts of earlier in the day, only differently stated. The silent lie”.

The silent lie has become de rigeur for post-war Western culture. Thus during WW2 the British under Winston Churchill deliberately starved 6-7 million Indians to death for strategic reasons in the 1942-1945 Bengal Famine, a Bengali Holocaust that has been largely whitewashed from British history and of which there is no mention in Winston Churchill’s 6-volume “The Second World War” for which in part he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. In contrast, numerous publishers refused to touch my book on the subject entitled “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History” (now available for free perusal on the Web). For the Awful Truth see also Tom Keneally’s “Three Famines”,  Madhusree Mukerjee’s “Churchill’s Secret War”, Cormac Ó Gráda’s “Famine. A Short History”  Paul Greenough’s “Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the Famine of 1943-1944”, and Colin Mason’s “A Short History of Asia”.

The silent lie is alive and well today as the Mainstream media of the Western Murdochracies and Lobbyocracies ignore the horrendous carnage of the Zionist-backed US War on Muslims that since 1990 has been associated, so far, with violence- and deprivation-related deaths totalling 12 million in the ongoing Palestinian Genocide, Iraqi Genocide, Afghan Genocide, Somali Genocide and Libyan Genocide. Inspired by the example of Polish war hero Jan Karski who tried to tell an unbelieving world about the WW2 Jewish Holocaust as it was happening (5-6 million Jews died, 1 in 6 dying from deprivation),  I have  been attempting to tell the world about the appalling carnage of the continuing  Muslim Holocaust and Muslim Genocide but for my troubles have been variously censored and then blocked from posting comments on the ABC Late Night Live website (the taxpayer-funded ABC is the Australian  equivalent of the UK BBC) and on the website of the  taxpayer-funded, universities-backed and academic-based web magazine The Conversation (backing institutions including  the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of Western Australia, RMIT, and CSIRO).

Aminatta Forna’s novel “The Memory of Love” has a powerful message about “the silent lie” that buries the horrendous realities of war. Peace is the only way but silence kills and silence is complicity. We cannot walk by on the other side. We must all do our bit to oppose censorship, self-censorship and the silent lie by telling everyone we can about past and present atrocities. History ignored yields history repeated.

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