The memory of Love and anti-authoritarianism

In Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, there is a constant underlying message of anti-authoritarianism. It is presented in slim moments of political conversation, despite the novel’s major focus being on the emotional state of people left by these conditions. The choice to focus on the emotional state of these peoples brings a major humanizing factor and accomplished the display of the effects of authoritarianism on the human psyche. This can be observed through a Marxist lens with the story of Julius and Elias Cole in their responses to these events, as well as their validations for doing what they did, which all blend together to create a nuanced understanding of survival and how to move about through a world even during the worst of times. Forna also uses the present-day sections of the novel to present the effects of the decisions made pre civil war and pose questions once again to how people operate for survival after traumatic experiences.

Elias Cole begins the novel alive but close to dying. He has lived a long life, and as we come to find out, had a child with the woman he first fell in love with after, as he described it, “[he’d] lost her twice,” and lived a seemingly fruitful life. As we move through the narrative however, Cole continues to tell his story to Adrien and we are able to begin seeing that while his life was plagued by the ordinary, he had these moments of manipulation in order to insert himself into the lives of Julius and his wife, Saffia. We can see these moments of the ordinary in his responses to the politics often presented to him while with his new friends discussing the moon landing, “a hundred years ago it was [Africa] [Europe] was fighting over. Our land, our wealth, our souls,” which garnered little response from him, and often his own work was described as chronicling rather than analyzing or observing politics (Forna, 149). The company he keeps leads to his arrest, which presents him with a major choice to make. Are he or his friend willing to fight and die for their ideologies, or are they going to leave it be? The inevitable answer is that Julius dies, and the rest of Cole’s friends scatter outside the country, while he remains due to his uncontroversial status. He sees his peers and friends slowly removed over the years following, but in this analysis one has to ask, would his death along with Julius have accomplished anything? It is a frequently asked question- one person alone cannot confront authoritarianism. In an interview with NPR, Forna described the experience of her father helping to confront the one party system which caused the civil war, stating that he would have done it for his children much in the same way someone else with children may have done nothing in order to help protect their family from notoriety. This distinction is an interesting one, and in fact the first time in the novel we see Elias Cole expressing real passion is at the prospect of beginning a family with the opportunity only presented to him through the death of Julius. The death of Julius is also surrounded by an interesting use of the Repressive state apparatus (RSA), or the state enacted physical violence used to control a dominant ideology. This comes in the way of Elias Cole’s interaction with the police after his arrest. He manages to easily slip right through the police barricades, and each other time we see him interact with these areas and people, he finds his way through in the way of bribes or smooth talk. This leads to a direct point on how one interacts with dominant ideologies, as if you sit well inside of them, the RSA has no reason to confront you, other than to threaten you from afar. The one time we see Cole’s negative interaction with the police is when they believe he exists outside of that dominant ideology as a result of his paper. 

When observing the emotional states left by the trauma left by the civil war, whether directly mentioned or not, one must observe the actions with the repressive state apparatus in order to understand what created the conditions for these traumas to exist. In this observation, we can look again to the ends of both Elias Cole and Julius. Each of them made choices on how to survive through the authoritarian system with which they were presented, and each made those choices for the sake of a family and a life. Their motivations were the same, and yet their decisions stand contrary to one another.

In the sections of the novel based in present day, we care able to observe the effects of authoritarian regimes on the lives of people within them. Elias is now an old man with a depression disorder, and the aftereffects of the one-party system are seen in similar traumatic experiences everywhere. What is interesting about the way Forna focuses her novel however is that she does not look back to the government again, but instead focuses on the relationship between these regular people once again. This focus can be exemplified when Adrian says, “displaced anger [is] one of the most brutal paradoxes of exploited people,” which within Marxism expresses the other major tool used by a dominant ideology to retain power, the Ideological state apparatus, or the IDS (Forna, 253). The burden of solving the major problems of society becomes the responsibility of the individual rather than the collective. This shift of responsibility allows for the “government [to steal] from their own people for decades,” with little to no protest. The conversation between Mamakay (Elias Cole’s daughter) and Adrian shows the direct impact a lack of action from large swaths of the proletariat, or the working-class people of the country, had for the worse. This section exemplifies the idea that Julius, as an individual, accomplished little for himself, however, was still threatening enough to be removed, as if he had received mainstream attention there would have been a major threat to the dominant power structures. This can also be seen in the fact that the action Elias Cole did take was participating in the march to honor Julius, for which he went unpunished. In his standing within a large group of individuals, he does what little he can in that moment without threat on his life.

The use of both ISA and RSA in Forna’s novel carve out a clear impact on the culture of Sierra Leone, and this is part of the purpose in the nonlinear structure of the novel. It allows a reader to see the places where the culture shifted to one of silence to display the effects of the silence or inaction of certain characters, but especially Cole. The shift into silence and its lasting effects are an excellent example of Laconian ideas of the symbolic order. The symbolic order is the parts of our developmental cycle which are influenced by language and culture in the places we grow up in. We see differences within the symbolic order in the stories of Kai and Adrian’s conflicts when Kai reminds Adrien that Sierra Leone is not his country. Changing a culture and a language to one which begs inactivity of its denizens is the end goal within Authoritarianism. These changes influence almost all of the conflicting Traumas found in the present-day sections of the novel and are a vast part of the reasons for the loss suffered over and over by those present. This idea of loss is also frequently presented in Laconian psychoanalysis as the ‘objet petite a,’ which functions as a focal point of desire for something unattainable. Elias Cole, for example, has his unattainable desire in the love of Saffia as a physical manifestation, but moreover a desire for love and attention on a broader spectrum. This is important because Saffia and his desire for a family is the driving factor of much of his inaction through the novel. Even in the death of Julian, we see him seeking a way to turn it into his own victory by marrying Saffia. This drive for an object of desire is what indirectly leads to the shifting of a symbolic order, once again helping to drive the authoritarian state to drive home their influence. This exploitation of the desire for a normal family unit, or for anything which can be lost, is what provides the open door for trauma. There is no escaping it, as anything can be lost, but in an examination of its influence in this narrative, it can be seen in the avoidance so many take to observing the things they have lost, or in the way of refusing to give up on the fact that they have lost them.

The idea that trauma comes as a response to surroundings and conditions of an individual rather than exclusively from their development lends itself to the ideas present in Laconian psychoanalysis well. If the symbolic order, the order in which a person learns language and begins to acknowledge cultural norms, cannot progress in a natural state but instead is affected by harmful rhetoric policing certain actions, trauma becomes a natural response. This response comes not as a result of the existence of the symbolic order as a structure, but instead its behavior when policed by a harmful cultural hegemony. A reader does not see an introduction into the symbolic order from childhood, but the reader does find changes to what is acceptable according to the government to be rapidly changing, as they see Elias Cole punished for an unpublished paper about politics, or as we see Julius killed for his personal politics as well. This style of cultural policing has long lasting effects on the population which can be seen in the fugue states presented by Agnes, who refuses to leave her home in spite of the trauma which occurred there, as it is considered outside what is acceptable. The only way she can leave her home at that point is in a near catatonic state. Forna described the inspiration for this being the women in her village that would “would step out of their lives and they would go for a long walk and it was almost like it was a self-healing thing,” which creates a moment wherein distance or movement are solutions on an individual basis (Forna, NPR interview). This Laconian structure to observe trauma benefits from Marxism because it allows the reader to view the way structures influence individuals in a top-down manner, and the idea of removing yourself from the places affected by these authoritarian power structures is also visible in the narrative. For example, Kai’s main conflict oh a physical level is whether to leave Sierra Leone for America and leave behind his home. The ability to remove himself would separate himself from so much of what made him himself but would also distance himself from the parts of that which were harmful. Forna leaves the question in the air as to whether that would help him or not, and instead leaves it.

Overall, The Memory of Love is about survival. The ability for people to survive in the face of war and authoritarianism, while also confronting the fact that survival is not the only goal of living. In her display of the RSA and ISA, Forna shows the ways in which the dominant cultural hegemony affected change on the world around these characters, but more specifically, the effect those changes had on the people themselves. From the range of trauma responses visible, we see an expression of trauma from the systems in place around these people, rather than from points of their developments, leading to a more Laconian understanding of the causes of trauma responses. In understanding the fact that much of this trauma stems from something which has a route to be changed, the novel’s focus becomes on humanizing the people affected and showing why things need to change and how those negative impacts have lasting effects on generations past just the ones where these things occurred. The culture surrounding the trauma of what happened there was converted to one of silence, which is why so much of the novel focuses on what was not said, or what people did not do but could have. This humanization combined with a lack of available decisions creates a very human world where readers can observe the effects of these major events and the dangers that come in attempting to slow them, but even more so the danger that comes in failing to stop them.