This is how they break you

Elizabeth Lowry

  • All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
    Sceptre, 256 pp, £17.99, June 2014, ISBN 978 1 4447 9377 2

‘How was I supposed to live in America when I had never really left Ethiopia?’ the immigrant Sepha Stephanos asks in Dinaw Mengestu’s first novel, Children of the Revolution (2007). Mengestu is himself an Ethiopian-American, having settled in the US with his family at the age of two. His second novel, How to Read the Air (2010), revisited the same question in the figure of Jonas Woldemariam, the struggling son of Ethiopian settlers in New York. In All Our Names Mengestu has again written about a displaced person, but it would be far too simple to call it a novel about the immigrant experience.

All Our Names is constructed around two alternating narratives, one set in Africa at some point in the early 1970s, in the hiatus between the end of colonialism and the rise of dictatorial regimes across Africa; the other in the American Midwest approximately a year later. The unnamed narrator is, once again, a young Ethiopian, who has left his village and crossed the border into newly independent Uganda with the intention of reinventing himself in Kampala. In the course of the journey he divested himself of everything he belonged to before, all names and family ties. ‘When I was born,’ he explains, ‘I had 13 names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with my father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have 13 names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.’ But he felt ‘as if I had been born into a prison’, and eventually persuaded his father to let him leave. ‘I went to Addis Ababa, and then took buses to Kenya and Uganda. I was no one when I arrived in Kampala; it was exactly what I wanted.’ (The narrator more usually refers to Kampala simply as ‘the capital’, as if it, too, has no name.)

Once there, he hangs about the university campus and makes friends with Isaac, who is equally desperate to construct a new identity for himself. The narrator’s ambitions are literary; Isaac chooses insurgent politics. Though Isaac gives the bookish narrator several nicknames – among them ‘Langston’ (after the poet Langston Hughes) and ‘Professor’ – his true name remains concealed to the end. As Uganda slips into revolution Isaac finally bequeaths the narrator his own name, together with his passport, and so allows him to escape to the United States.

The story of how this narrator ‘Isaac’ survives by fleeing Uganda and undergoing another wholesale erasure of his identity – becoming an immigrant twice over – is interwoven with the unfolding story of his new life in America. The second strand of the novel, set in the small Midwestern town of Laurel, is told by Helen, the white social worker who is assigned to look after him. To Helen, the stateless Isaac – whose folder contains only ‘a single loose leaf of paper’, with ‘no month or date of birth, only a year … no country or city’ – is a cipher, someone ‘made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in’. She is, in some ways, just as vestigial: reserved, self-effacing, still living with her mother in the childhood home she has not quite outgrown. In a book where names and their absence carry such freight, Helen’s and Isaac’s are instructive. That there might be something more to Helen is hinted at in her casual remark that her father ‘named me Helen for reasons he said he couldn’t remember’. Like her classical namesake, she is poised for transgression while Isaac’s name recalls the son who came dangerously close to being sacrificed to the god of his fathers.

All Our Names sets the enormous cost of sacrifice to an idea of patrimony against the small, hard-won freedoms of a life lived on its own terms. The Kampala campus is full of student activists, ‘dozens of Lumumbas, Marleys, Malcolms, Césaires, Kenyattas, Senghors and Selassies, boys who woke up every morning and donned the black hats and olive-green costumes of their heroes’. The ur-Isaac, by contrast, is a striver and a charmer, who doesn’t know or care whether he is a nationalist or a Pan-Africanist, so long as he is noticed. He begins by launching a tongue-in-cheek, anti-government ‘paper revolution’:

‘Our first act of war,’ Isaac said, ‘is to hang these up where everyone can see them.’

The fliers contained a new list of Crimes Against the Country.

‘Why should they be the only ones who get to say stupid things?’ he said.

That first flier listed four.

It is a Crime Against the Country to fail to report any Crimes committed Against the Country.

It is a Crime Against the Country not to know what is a Crime Against the Country.

It is a Crime Against the Country to ask what is a Crime Against the Country.

It is a Crime Against the Country to think or say there are too many Crimes Against the Country.

These passages satirising the empty posturing of much revolutionary rhetoric are engaging, but Mengestu seems, at times, to be as vague about the politics of Uganda as this Isaac himself is. It is a conscious choice; Mengestu has travelled Africa as a journalist and knows the terrain. In an interview earlier this year with the New Yorker, he said: ‘I could use Kampala – and, by extension, elements of Uganda’s history – to ground the characters, but I also needed the freedom to imagine a distinct world for them according to the needs and demands of the story I was imagining.’ The novel requires this vagueness: what really interests Mengestu is the struggle of the individual against the forces of culture and country. But the difficulty of this fabular approach is that it too often leaves us with a version of Africa as a place of cyclical violence in which the laws of cause and effect seem ill-defined.

Isaac’s campus stunts soon get him noticed by Joseph Mabira, the son of a Ugandan political family who is orchestrating his own revolution to avenge the death of his father at the government’s hands. Mabira is urbane and needy, brutal and solicitous. As his involvement with Mabira deepens, Isaac evolves from an irreverent chancer to a full-blown revolutionary and becomes less charming and more sociopathic. Demonstrating his ability to order expedient executions, he rises up the ranks in Mabira’s makeshift army from captain to colonel. From time to time he disappears with Mabira and his henchmen (there is a suggestion in Isaac’s relationship with Mabira, which contains a strong sadomasochistic streak, that he has traded sex for influence) to ‘liberate’ the nearby towns, only to reappear again and vent his self-loathing in random acts of aggression. We are told next to nothing about the motivation behind Mabira’s war: it is presented as a self-perpetuating machine driven by little more than the wish for revenge and the impulse to power. Vignettes are used as a shorthand for the complex politics of different African nations. Foreign guns are smuggled into the capital in wheelbarrows; shady apparatchiks ‘with pistols fastened at their belts’ come and go in the dead of night, driven in black Mercedes. Military men ‘with several rows of medals and buttons’ pinned to their chests are despatched one by one on the grounds that ‘certain people are convinced they can’t be trusted.’ Admittedly, Mabira is not a caricature, and Mengestu’s eye for detail – Isaac, after returning from the brutal extermination of a village, wades ankle-deep into the shallow grave of the soldiers who committed this atrocity, as if he wants to bury himself in it – consistently stops these scenes from becoming clichéd. But the political action is less, not more, convincing for remaining mysterious.

This mystery inevitably undermines the portrayal of the narrator’s friendship with Isaac, which, like Isaac’s revolutionary activities themselves, retains a schematic quality. When Isaac bestows the gift of his identity on his friend with the words ‘No one will have ever loved each other more than we did,’ it rings false. The narrator’s connection with Helen in the second strand of the book is more believable. There is occasional brutality, but it is an intimate, nuanced brutality, the adumbration of which is Mengestu’s real strength. Helen begins an affair with Isaac the narrator precisely because of his otherness; the extent to which his race could pose an obstacle doesn’t at first occur to her. Racially speaking, 1970s Laurel is ‘middle of the road, never bitterly segregated, but with lines dividing black from white all over town, whether in neighbourhoods, churches, schools, or parks’. Although Helen begins their liaison in secret, as an act of self-assertion, she later sets about introducing him into her world as an overt challenge to the community’s boundaries.

In a scene much more disturbing than any of those gesturing at the fallout of revolution in Kampala, she takes him to the town’s diner, where she is well known and expects a welcome. Her aim is to legitimise their relationship in stages, but she makes the mistake of not consulting her lover about the plan. After placing their order, Helen strategically holds his hand for a few seconds. When their waitress reappears, she asks if they would like to take their food with them. ‘Isaac understood immediately what was happening, and, in the same breath, knew how to respond. Before I could answer, he told her, “No. We would rather eat here” – polite yet determined.’ The waitress returns bearing his omelette on a stack of thin paper plates, with plastic cutlery. Helen’s fried chicken arrives some time afterwards, served on the canteen’s standard china. They eat: although Helen is completely browbeaten, Isaac insists that they stay. Helen understands that this is his way of settling the score, and is unsurprised, on looking up, to see ‘something slightly cruel lurking in his gaze’. ‘Now you know,’ he says once they are back in the car. ‘This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces.’

In spite of this, their relationship survives, not least because they have in common an absolute lack of self-pity. They also share an emotional reticence – stemming, in his case, from the events he has witnessed in Uganda; in hers, from having to deal professionally with the dispossessed, frail and sick – which gives their relationship a formal, old-fashioned quality (her nickname for him is ‘Dickens’). At times Mengestu’s bitten-back prose, so well suited to anatomising understated agony, relaxes into sly humour. When the two stop by at Helen’s home, Isaac waits tactfully in the car, but Helen’s mother can’t help twitching the curtains and he is forced to come in and introduce himself. ‘Isaac entered as either the embodiment or a caricature of an English gentleman,’ Helen says. As he does so Helen’s own relationship with her emotionally distant mother, made of equal parts of affection and incomprehension, is suddenly illuminated:

I kept from laughing for my mother’s sake and Isaac’s. They were both performing. I couldn’t have asked them to do more than that. Isaac complimented the house; ‘magnificent’ was the word he chose. My mother downplayed the praise and then described the house as late Victorian, a phrase I had never heard her use before, and which could only have been the result of having Isaac around. The house was as late Victorian as his accent.

The comedy here is nicely gauged.

Unlike the enervated immigrants of Mengestu’s earlier novels, the enigmatic Isaac radiates a sense of quiet purpose that makes him both substantial and immensely appealing. Mengestu’s assertion of the claims of the self against the ideologies of tribe, nation or home is all the more powerful for being expressed through paradox: a character who is as comprehensively stripped of personal ephemera as a protagonist can reasonably be.