Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love encompasses imagery and symbols that serves well to illuminate layers of meaning in Forna’s book. The protagonist, Elias Cole, is just a small part of the larger political system that exists in Sierra Leone. For example, his boss, the Dean, is just a puppet, or more specifically, a political face that is used to ensure that the school is conforming to the standards set forth by the militaristic government. With this description, we see that Elias attempts to get into his good graces. When he first “pursues efforts to meet the dean, he had already pre-rehearsed these arguments” (70). The Dean is portrayed as corrupt and cutthroat because he runs the school with an iron fist, but this aspect is a facade because of the Dean’s lack of authority in comparison to the governing body that is responsible for the regulation of the school activities.
During the Sierra Leone Civil War and even in times of political peace, the government regulated institutions because they felt threatened by intellectual material that exposed the corruption of the government. As a result, censorship was an important part of the government’s objectives. The Dean’s caricature is very important to explaining why Elias gravitates towards him: he sees him as an authority figure, a position that he is aspiring to rise to. Remember, since Elias is just a young professor within the school, his name does not hold much weight with the Dean, which is why he wants to meet him in his office. There, “the Dean was a big man, and his buttocks came up as he was talking” (60). Elias’s description of this specific trait is a application of his admiration for the Dean because his large frame really results in his large stature within the university.
During the civil war, Sierra Leone was possessed with violence and corruption, so when Elias says that “he appeared to approach the world at a trot, he is looking at Sierra Leone from his own lense and trying to figure out what is going on” (78). The government did not seem to fully understand the gravity of what was going on because of the mass killings and exits of many of its people. “Elias sees the Dean is a figure he should look up to and strive to become rather than seeing him as just a face of what the government believes to be the right education for the students” (74). The Dean demands respect from Elias and his professors of the organization because he understands the ramifications of refusing to submit, which include intimidation and death.
Julius’s asthma foreshadows death because Elias makes sure to point it out the reader. At first, it is a small part of Elias’s memory as he lies on his deathbed. Cole seems to recall an incident ”when everybody laughed, Julius laughed so vigorously that he started to wheeze” (35). Then, Cole makes sure to mention that “Saffia’s and Julius’s relationship was defined by this particular incident” (35). Elias is already chasing after Saffia, supposedly behind Julius’s back, even though I feel that he has some idea of what is going on. However, he can clearly see that this relationship is one-sided; that Elias is the one that is burdening Saffia. The asthma is a achilles heel, which is interesting why he brings up this miniscule fact within the context of his entire story because this is being told while he is on his deathbed.
When Elias and Saffia are together, Elias describes “going to the kitchen, opening the fridge door, and reaching for a bottle of water, but instead taking a bottle of coca-cola” (187). This is an important point: that Elias is striving to something that he is not. Based on Julius’s characterization, from Elias’s point of view, it is clear that he is considered a man in the eyes of Elias. He is successful and has a beautiful wife, which is something that Elias covets. Elias’s desire to be like Julius means that he lusts after Saffia; he wants the life with her. The simple scene with the coca-cola shows the simplicity and peace that is contained within Saffia’s and Julius’s life together. The irony of the scene happens after Elias says that he does not want Julius to see him here, because he gets arrested and dumped into a cold abyss.
This is a symbolic way of reminding Elias that Saffia is not his; it is reminiscent of the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve were not permitted to eat in the garden of Eden. Elias, like Adam and Eve, is “persecuted with a brutal interrogation by a man named Mr. Johnson” (180). He asks Elias purposeful questions, which are meant to slowly break down his physiological resistance, so that they can somehow gain some resolution to the situation. Elias is accused of writing a scathing article accusing the government of abusing its authority, something that he supposedly did not write. However, the thought of going to jail resonates in Elias’s mind. This experience alters his perception of life and its harsh realities because as he sits in jail, he remembers “pinching at his shirt, feeling sticky, and despite hearing people nearby, he is still very much alone” (188). His heart feels empty and he feels as though he has nothing to live for.
Elias is very much alone in the world, despite him believing that other people truly care about him. His ongoing obsession with it has caused him to isolate himself from everyone else that cared about him.
In Adrian and Abass’s conversation, they talk about a sparrow, imagining that the bird lands on a rock, and wipes it beak on both sides until the rock is worn away” (195). Now that Elias is reminiscing about his life, he realizes that the rock represent the constant pressure on his own recollection of events. His mind had been worn down to the point of exhaustion, to where he is remembering certain things that possibly never happened, such as the dream of Saffia or even the incident of the rock. This is more of a symbol of the altering of Elias’s life after the death of Julius and his marriage to Saffia. Since th3e rock has almost worn completely away, Elias is coming to the realization that the life he thought he wanted really was not what it appeared to be, much like the rock, on the outside appearing to be a strong structure, but the constant wear on the outside started to tear away those barriers of strength, exposing a weak core.
The presence of Saffia, the sparrow, is slowly wearing about at the rock’s structure. It is slowly degrading Elias’s to the point of destruction: this death. Everyone knows that everyone dies eventually, and in Elias’s case , his memory of love are his last thoughts before death. Death is not a peaceful process because it involves the complete tearing down of the body structure until it cannot function anymore. In the process of death, which I have witnessed firsthand, the individual begins to have memories or thoughts in their brain that cause them to outburst or to dream even further. They delve into the brain as it shuts down to attempt to drive out those memories in the back of their subconscious. Many begin to recite names of those they remember, even those that have passed on. This is exactly what is happening the life and death of Elias cole. He is remembering the things that he wants to forget, asdn the people that he loved so dearly, and trying to, in his mind, comprehend what he has done.
The mind and body
Elias Cole “is devoting his life, his mind, and his body to impressing her with every little step he takes” (220). This affair is involving everything from showing up to her house at any hour of the day to displaying simple, but inappropriate gestures of affection take its toil on Elias’s ability to live a life without pain or heartbreak. And this point cannot be elaborated more clearly: “Saffia is a married woman” (54). She should be unattainable to him, but that is what makes him really go, so he is accepting the challenge of impressing another woman, even if she is married. But when he is jailed, he is forced to come to the reality of the world he lives in. Elias Cole is nothing, he is just a bottomfeeder trying to move his way up with charm and good graces. He finally feels the wrath under the authority of a headmaster, who can demonstrate who is the headmaster as he sits in prison” (207). The narrative focuses on Elias’s struggle to find a self-identity because he wants to become the man to Saffia. In reality, Elias is a lost man whose advances towards Saffia and fraying relationship with Julius will unfortunately culminate in something either more sinister or tragic that will impact his life.
It is hard to really make out what will come from Adrian and Elias Cole’s daughter. This is intriguing because much like Elias, Adrian is somehow personally involved with another family’s drama. It is ironic that Adrian is completely different from Elias, but yet he is the same, because of his love. Their love is less physical and more soulful, with the tender passion of their bodies colliding. It is another stark contrast from what we see with Elias in his feverish pursuit of Saffia. His love is not authentic because it is formed from lust and desire. On the other hand, Kai’s relationship is significant because the idea of love is different for both men. Kai is more physical, “with a lot of lovemaking and physical contact, which is more desirable” (192). Passion is a big part of Love, but the question remains: what is Love? When Elias and Saffia are married, it is not “Love: but the fulfillment of Elias’s fulfillment of a dream. Elias appears to pity himself with satisfaction. This interpretation of love is a common thread within The Memory of Love.
When Julius is arrested and sent to jail, Elias Cole says “I’d like to reassure his wife” (223). It seems as though the burden represented by Julius has been lifted from his shoulders Then, when Julius is found dead in the jail, Elias now knows that the one man who threatens his manhood and his dream/aspirations is gone, pathing the way for him to be with Saffia. However, it is not as though the clearing of this obstacle was not foreshadowed before. The author subtly referred to Juliu’s asthma, as if to tell us that it will be his downfall. His death is also the symbolic death of the good, noble man, and the flourishing of the evil one. This also brings up the questions of what is just, because how could Julius, who n0one considered a threat or conniving, die, and Elias, the mediocre character of a professor/man, live and go on with his wife, Saffia?
The relationship between Adrian and Agnes is paralleled with Elias’s own struggles to get closer to Saffia. Much like Elias, Adrian seems to be obsessed with her; “Agnes, I am very pleased to see you. I hope you do not mind me coming to your home” (203). It is understandable that being a doctor, Adrian has a unique connection to his patients, but he does not display this type of behavior towards any of his other patients, and they are not described to the extent that Agnes exists in Adrian’s subconscious. Adriana “wants to see her again, which sounds like a level of affection that is above doctor-patient connection” (204). Adrian goes on to say that he is “thinking about the next step with Agnes” (204). This is unusual situation because Agnes is unstable patient, whose conscious is deeply affected by her past experiences (watching her husband being murdered). The idea that Adrian is deciding to open himself up to these externalities again reinforces the parallel narrative with Elias, his patient, who is recalling his past, one that is shaded with his unusual affection for another man’s wife.
Abass is intriguing little boy that really carries to hopes and dreams of Kai and Adrian with him. During one interaction, “Abass, voice juddering as he bounces on the car’s back set that the number of stars in the sky is infinite” (194). This is an allusion to never ending nature of the world, that they are endless possibilities for Abass, Kai, that cannot be realized by the war in Sierra Leone. Kids like Abass are the soldiers on the frontline of this brutal conflict, which drives home the point of his innocence. The children of Sierra Leone are the soldiers of the nation because of the hopes and dreams that surround them, which makes the war and its aftermath more heartbreaking. Families were seated or even completely destroyed, such that the next generation of children and their children did not have an opportunity to be born, grow, and develop. And as Abass asks how big is infinity, Adrian responds with “a never-ending number” (194). Escaping from the war zone seemed dangerous and unlikely, so imagining the world outside of Sierra Leone seems awe-inspiring to little Abass. Kai even sees Abass as a smaller, more vulnerable version of himself because Abass has not yet entered into manhood. He is a young boy trying to navigate the world with the men around him.
Symbol: mental ward as parallel of broader society
Part of the beauty of frame narrative as a literary technique is that it allows for several layers of meaning to develop which might otherwise be lost. In The Memory of Love, much of the material presented about Elias Cole and his life is told retrospectively, from a hospital bed in a mental ward. Adrian, the psychologist, becomes the lens through which we hear Elias’ story. Moreover, the mental ward in which these scenes take place become the epicenter of where life and death are each addressed. In his own character and plot arc, Elias interacts with other medical practitioners in an environment symbolic of the larger culture of the time. Recovering from a civil war, Sierra Leone and her children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is symbolized by the individuals at the mental ward who also suffer from PTSD, as well as several other ailments such as schizophrenia, depression, and personality disorders. Adrian often feels overwhelmed by his responsibilities as a psychologist at this mental ward, which is understandable as the place has become the locus of psychological anguish for a nation recovering from the atrocities of war. However, despite this “doom and gloom” atmosphere that develops around the patients and their setting, Forna also manages to sustain an intensely hopeful movement in her characters. Maaza Mengiste, in writing for The New York Times, says that “Forna’s characters… [show us] that the world we inhabit reaches beyond borders and ripples out through generations… at the core of this novel is the brave and beating heart, at once vulnerable and determined, unwilling to let go of all it has ever loved” (96). I believe the reader is able to feel through the symbolism of the mental ward both the egregious weight of loss that a nation after war has suffered, and the vitalizing energy of hope that sustains life through tragedy: despite Elias’ deflections, and the patients’ babbling nonsense, their human hearts cling to life, unwilling to succumb to the whispering ease of death.
Elias Cole was invited to dinner at Saffia and Julius’s house at the beginning of chapter three. Cole finds himself early to dinner and observing the house where they live before he enters the house. He characterizes the house as “The paintwork was pale pink, sun-streaked, with dark-pink recesses and a tin roof. And orange tree, laden with fruit, bent over the house, which was reached through an open gate” (31). The gate that stands as a barrier between the house and the outside world, is a representation of what Julius is to Cole. Cole is deeply in love with Saffia, Julius’s wife, but the issue is that he can never have relations with Saffia while Julius is the iron gate. I believe that Julius does know that Cole is attracted to Saffia and would want to have a relationship with her, but Julius knowing that his wife is trustworthy and in love with him knows that Cole can never have relations with Saffia as long as he is in relations with Saffia, which is his master plan. Furthermore, I believe Julius is playing with Cole in a psychological way. Cole can manage to hop the gate sometimes and spend time with Saffia, take pictures of her, and talk to her, but the gate never leaves, it always there, just like Julius.
Elias Cole wrote a paper for the faculty journal, ‘Reflections on Changing Political Dynamics. This paper seemed to be quite important to him because, despite distractions from himself and primarily from Julius coming through the office looking for spare change and fresh ears to update on current events, Cole was devoted to this article. Whether it was that the topic was of importance to him, he wanted to be published into the journal, or just that the writing brought him out of his own thoughts for a period of time Cole worked hard and long to get it right. Cole “worked late most nights, hitting the keys” of his typewriter until “his fingers ached” (61). By the end of the week, after drafting and redrafting his paper, he typed up a final copy of his work and then submitted it. Two weeks after the submission the paper was returned to Elias Cole with a note from the Dean of the school attached. However, the note was not good news stating that the paper he had slaved away over for a week had been declined for publication. Later, Cole visited the Dean in attempt to appeal the rejection of his work with “arguments rehearsed and ready (70). After a bit of small chat and perhaps some avoidance tactics by the Dean Cole asked him what the problem was with his paper. The Dean cut him off before the full question was even out and simply replied with a “not really your best” (72). Just like that all the work invested was for naught and brushed under the rug.
The paper is Elias Cole because in his life he worked, he fought and really never saw much return. In Cole’s relation with Saffia he continuously puts himself out there and cannot stop thinking of her. He seems to make positive movement in the way he wants the relationship to go and then will hit a wall. Saffia will hit him with a ‘would you mind’ and Elias would get out of the car (77). Elias would get rejected. Not to say that there is no appropriate reason for a rejection but all the same he is rejected. Elias Cole’s life is hard work and passion, no return, and rejection.
Symbol: Volkswagen Variant
A potentially underrepresented symbol in The Memory of Love is the Kamara’s Volkswagen Variant. As Elias approaches Saffia for the first time, the “white Volkswagen Variant was parked up,” and he speaks to her prior to Julius arriving (10). Furthermore, Elias takes it upon himself to record the license plate number of the car, perhaps foreshadowing a future path of Elias’ obsessive behavior. This car often offers Elias and Saffia a chance at some time alone, as Saffia gives him rides. Moreover, Elias admired “the traces of light outlined the arcs of her cheekbones, her forehead, and the bridge of her nose,” building his attraction to her early in the novel (12). Elias also ponders about the interaction with after getting out of the car, as he felt “strangely abandoned” and “felt exhilarated and at the same time [Elias] had a sense of having somehow mis-stepped” (14, 77). The Variant provides an avenue for Elias to spend time with Saffia, which may lead to more opportunities to develop their relationship.