Love and Obsession
Elias Cole, a man on his deathbed, tells the confessions of his love for Saffia. His obsession with her is like no other. He cannot stop thinking about her. The thoughts happen so naturally that they are subconsciously occurring in his mind all hours of the day. Elias goes on to say that “no woman had ever produced such a relentless in me. I have never been in love…I was lost in the darkness amid thunder, blinding flashes, the madness of the wind” (Forna 97). Elias will do anything to get her, despite knowing she is something he cannot have. Saffia never questioned his presence throughout the novel. Hearing the story from the point of view of Elias Cole leaves their relationship up to the discretion of the reader. Elias has such strong feelings for Saffia that he begins to hate Julius, for even his presence or name being mentioned aggravates Elias.
Furthermore, Dr. Cole mentions Elias’ obsession to Saffia in his novel Space and Trauma In The Writings Of Aminatta Forna. Here, “[e]lias’ blindness is a consequence of his addiction, not to drugs, but to Saffia. His level of addiction is so strong that his obsession is out of control” (Cole 190). He brings up an important aspect of this theme that describes Elias’ obsession to that of an individual addicted to drugs. He cannot stop pursuing her, no matter the consequence. This love is so strong that all other thoughts are pushed aside in pursuit of Saffia.
We see love and obsession play another big role in the other protagonist in the story, Adrian. Adrian is a foreign in the country he practices in. He is unhappy with his life and feels like he is not having an impact on anyone through his career as a psychologist. He tends to isolate himself, instead of getting involved in his surroundings and learning about what the culture has to offer. Despite all his sorrow, he has one patient who resembles his holy grail. Her name is Agnes. She was beautiful, as Adrian would describe, and said, “[t]he years were carried not upon her body but in the light of her eyes” (Forna 161). She was a patient of Adrian’s and suffered from memory from the civil war. Agnes left the hospital unexpected and as Adrian went to show up to her house unexpectedly, he got beaten up by her brother in law. He was determined to go back and see her again, despite what consequences might occur. She was his obsession and would not give up on trying to help her, as it made him feel successful in his career for once.
The obsession of Adrian towards Agnes can also be viewed as Adrian’s love for Agnes. The obsession and love that Adrian has towards Agnes is portrayed in another scene just a few chapters later. Adrian, Kai, and Abass, Kai’s nephew, are making a road trip when they had to stop to get gas. When they stop, there is a line. Adrian and Abass walk to the marketplace while Kai waits with the car. In the marketplace, Adrian spots a woman with a cloth covering her head. As she gets closer, Adrian realizes it is Agnes. The obsession over Agnes causes him to seem to not care about anything else going on around him once he recognizes the woman is Agnes. He leaves Abass alone in the marketplace to go chase after Agnes, “[t]he woman with the girl. The woman with the cloth covering her head, framing her face. It is Agnes. Quickly he turns on his heels and returns to Abass. ‘Tell your uncle I’ll be two minutes.’ … Adrian sets off, walking quickly” (201). His willingness to leave this boy so abruptly truly shows his combined love and obsession for Agnes. He has no further regard than to connect with her once again, no matter the consequences to those around him.
PTSD and Trauma
Referencing Kai, the author begins to tell us the impact that PTSD has on him as a surgeon stating, “[t]he memories come at unguarded moments, when he cannot sleep” (184). We learn of patients he has treated and how they complained of feeling pain in their lost limbs, even know they no longer have those limbs. The author states that “[t]he pain is real, yes, but it is a memory of pain” (184). Kai feels these people’s pain and is often reminded of these times through memories. Forna goes on to compare this to Kai’s pain that he has experienced through love saying, “[a]nd when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him?” (185). She explains the loneliness he feels every day, comparing his memory of love to the memory of pain people have experienced through the war. This emphasizes how these particular events of love and war can lead to failure of recovery after experiencing traumatic events through them.
Later on, the novel introduced a dream that Kai is having in which he is being pressed up against a railing on a bridge by another person. After his dream, “[h]e wakes with the taste of blood and metal in his mouth, a ringing in his ears, images crashing against the line of his consciousness. Only the sound of his cousin knocking gently on the door brings him back to himself” (237). This shows the difficulty that Kai has to go through to deal with PTSD and how it affects him during his dreams so he has no control over the thoughts he experiences.
Another experience that reiterates the psychological trauma that Kai faces on a daily basis is during a procedure in the operating theatre. Him and some others were performing a procedure on Foday, a patient unable to use his legs, and leading up to using his diathermy wand, Kai is shaking, unable to steady himself. We are told there is nothing he can do to control it. Kai has such a feeling of discomfort, he asks the other surgeons if he can be excused, making up a lie that his stomach is upset from the food he ate the previous night. We are told that, “[t]en minutes elapse before he returns to the OR; the most delicate part of the procedure is over. Kai had spent the time sitting alone in the changing room, trying to locate the presence of mind required to continue, aware he couldn’t stay away too long” (242). He was having thoughts of Foday and of the altered technique he and Seligman, the other surgeon, were performing. Eventually he is able to reenter the theatre but as it stated, he had skipped out on the most delicate part of the procedure as he was not able to handle the thoughts racing through his head, and the pressure they were placing upon him.
In addition, other main characters in the book also suffer from trauma, although it is less obviously as Kai. Adrian has suffered from trauma because his family. Saffia is hurt by the death of Julius. Ileana suffers from unsaddling in her own country.
Forna uses silence throughout the novel to represent a variety of motives. Agnes, Adrian’s patient diagnosed with PTSD, copes with her deep trauma from the war by remaining silent. When Adrian first introduces himself, and begins asking her simple questions, Agnes offers no answer, and was silent even when only asked her name. In a while she begins to open up a bit more, but her story remains a mystery, and thus so does the source of her trauma. Eventually, however, the reader discovers that the rebel leader who brutally beheaded her husband married Agnes’ daughter after the war, and she has lived with them ever since. Such horrifying truths seem better left secret to survivors like Agnes, who would prefer to pretend they never happened at all. As Dr. Ernest Cole writes in Space and Trauma in the Writings of Aminatta Forna, “[i]n the context of post-war Sierra Leone, the hearts of survivors become the space where the atrocities of war are kept secret,” and “the novel suggests that secrets lead to silence” (Cole 199). This silence serves as a coping mechanism for the nation, still in shock from the horrors burned into each civilian’s memory. Adrian’s “talking therapy” from the westernized culture clashes with the survivor’s silence at first, but does ultimately offer relief to those who release the secrets they have been hiding for too long in their minds.
Elias, on the other hand, uses silence, or lying by omission, for manipulation and complicity. If the victims of the civil war use silence to cope with the evil they witnessed, men like Elias Cole used silence to perpetrate them. His daughter, Mamakay, gives a harsh but truthful insight into this part of his character:
“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” (Forna 350).
Elias sought his own success and safety, whether in the form of Saffia, his career, or his way out of prison, by staying silent when he should have stood up for what was right. His cowardice is contrasted by the bold and courageous character of Julius, who made comments about “the first black man on the moon” (348). Later, when Elias does nothing to stop the imprisonment and eventual death of Julius, he still sees himself as a victim, unloved by Saffia and tormented by the ghost of Julius. Forna expands their tragedy to span the entirety of Sierra Leone, which is still scarred by the injustices committed.
Government before war also promote silence in the way of banning freedom of speech. The reason for Elias and other professor get arrested is because the government believes they have done something that may cause trouble. One of the reasons to arrest them is to ensure that they will keep silence later. This point is confirmed with Dean’s advice to Elias: “Be careful with your company”. Even when the Dean knows something, he keeps silent in the way not telling Elias what happened exactly. The Dean also wants Elias to keep silent about the issue as well. In the previous chapter, one of the possible reasons that the Dean rejects Elias’ first paper is that the paper may promote governmental change, which the government does not want to see. With a government like this, it is inevitable that people tend to keep silent because opening up may lead to trouble, and could potentially lead to death.
Overall, silence is so much more complex than simply not wanting to speak. Silence is a multifaceted response that can sometimes even speak louder than words. Silence can mean anything from protest, acceptance, uncomfortability, avoidance, passivity, to even ignoring. In The Memory of Love, Forna is able to use silence as a theme in a plethora of ways to show not only the depth of meanings silence has, but also the depths of each character’s response to a war-ravaged country. From the theme of silence, Forna is able to demonstrate how war tears apart a country in so many ways. Or perhaps, even more so, Forna is able to reveal her belief that in fact the peace after a war is even more detrimental.