Often times, the most painful damages of war occur in the decades that follow the conflict. In Scottish-Sierra Leonean author Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, the wounds of warfare are ever-present in the people of the capital Freetown. Inevitably, one of the main themes of the story is suffering, but Forna shows that the ways in which people suffer in the story the typical African trope of harm by bullets and bombs. Many of the town’s citizens suffer from not only physical wounds but also from post-traumatic stress disorder. And with the concept of healing and saving, The Memory of Love shows the complexities of what it takes to save an ailing person. Forna manifests these concepts in the contrast between the characters of Adrian and Kai.
Adrian is a psychologist hailing from Britain, acting as the mental healer of the story. And while most medical treatments in Africa at the time were concentrated on healing physical illnesses, Adrian focused on illnesses of the mind. Kai, on the other hand, acts as the physical healer of the story. The fact is that he takes care of people’s immediate problems, i.e. severed limbs and stillbirths, however gruesome they are. As an African surgeon, Kai represents the ugly truth of war, doubting Adrian’s ability to help people.
Adrian’s character, more reserved than Kai, also seems to manifest the internalization of suffering. His repression of secrets like his failing marriage mirrors his patients’ repression of painful experiences. Kai’s outgoingness mirrors the manifestation of his patients’ obvious, external pain. Moreover, these two healers clash in their ideas of saving people, and at one point Kai feels that Adrian’s psychology work is useless because the people of Freetown are so disillusioned by war. And Adrian later realizes this: “People here don’t need therapy so much as hope.” (320) The difference between the two doctors seems to show Forna’s spin on the “white savior in Africa” and the real concept of suffering. In all, albeit a pessimistic perspective, Adrian and Kai show that sometimes healers can’t truly heal the sick, no matter if they come from the outside or within their own country.
“And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, 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, but the memory of love” (Chapter 21, last paragraph).
I love the language Aminatta Forna uses in this passage, to capture the essence of her novel’s title. To begin with, the speaker of this passage is Kai, an unlikely suspect for a deep introspection about love. All we know of Kai at this point is that he is a passionate workaholic, who has endured a traumatic war. It would have made more sense for Adrian, with the failing marriage, or Elias Cole, with his in-depth memoir, to make these comments, but Forna chooses Kai.
This distinction makes me wonder–was he really talking about Nenebah? While his love for Nenebah is obvious from the memories that are revealed to us overtime, I believe this “memory of love” could just as well have been directed towards his country, Sierra Leone.
In the chapter leading up to this dramatic paragraph, Kai goes back and forth between describing his time with Nenebah, and the political play-by-play of Sierra Leone: “The army was divided, he told Nenebah. If the army was divided it was dangerous for everyone” (Chapter 21). Not only so, but Kai spends any minute he’s not sleeping or with Nenebah at the hospital, the only time when “Kai was happy.” Kai is literally trying to put his country back together, one surgery at a time.
This is why I think Adrian and Kai’s friendship is so symbolic. As foreign aid workers flood into the country to help rebuild, Kai is constantly flashing back to the memories he has of his country before the war. His memories of the University, of his family gatherings, the trips to the countryside, all illustrate, to the readers, what life was like before the war. But Kai knows his country will never be able to go back to the way they once were, not with all of the wounds that he is helping to literally patch up. His temptation to move to America underlines this transition, that while he still may love the people close to him, his love for his country has, with the war, ended, leaving just the memory of love.