Like so many of his African writer peers, Dinaw Mengestu has set much of his fiction in the United States. This is true of his two superb earlier novels, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air, and largely true of his third, All Our Names, though most of the conflict emanates from the main character’s tortured past in East Africa. The writer, who was born in Ethiopia, was recently awarded a MacArthur fellowship and has published widely in American and British publications. The accolades about his work are just, and the praise for his most recent novel will certainly continue. But if you haven’t read either of the earlier novels, this is as good a place as any to begin.
The two narrative voices of the novel, Isaac and Helen, alternate chapters, slowly dipping backwards into time. Helen is a social worker in a Mid-West American university town, who still lives with her mother, though she’s been out of college for several years. Isaac, about the same age, has been assigned to her to monitor during the year he spends as an exchange student. He’s from East Africa, though as we learn late in the story, most recently from Uganda, though born in Ethiopia. Much of the early part of the story set in an unspecified East Africa country, anywhere in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, since the issues of political instability have largely been without borders. The American setting is also mostly without specific reference to a state or a university, in a town called Laurel. And the time frame? Perhaps thirty years ago, though, again, intentionally vague because of the implications of continued instability in African countries.
Perhaps the most telling scene in the novel—revealing so much of Isaac’s past—describes a group of soldiers, during an attempted coup. It’s Isaac’s voice narrating the passage, as the novel moves toward the tortured past that he’s been so reluctant to relate to Helen, even though they’ve been having an affair for close to a year. “The courtyard was littered with still-drunk soldiers, many of whom had fallen asleep with empty bottles and their guns tucked in their arms. I had fallen asleep listening to a group of them debate whether they were revolutionaries or liberators. They seemed to split evenly down the middle until, finally, one pointed out that there was no rule saying they couldn’t be both. ‘We are revolutionary liberators,’ he said, and to celebrate their new titles, they banged their bottles together, finished what was left in them, and then tossed them as far as they could over the hotel walls, to shatter on the road, where most children and many women walked barefoot.”
All this is background to Mengestu’s more immediate focus: the painful relationship between Helen and Isaac. That’s the primary thrust of the novel as Helen becomes romantically involved with the African student under her supervision. Imaginatively, the mid-Western American university campus is juxtaposed to one in East Africa where Isaac and his close friend became political agitators to overthrow the country’s corrupt government and its supportive police state. They are part of the poor on the campus, since most of the students are children of the elite. Initially, their activities are largely confined to graffiti, fairly innocuous statements such as the following:
“Marx was a great man, and now he’s dead.
Lenin was a great man, and now he’s dead.
I have to admit, I’m not feeling so well myself.”
But then, Isaac’s best friend (also named Isaac) gains a following of adjitators on the campus and things begin to change. Mysteriously, the second Isaac disappears, but when he reappears a few days later, he’s got money to burn and, more significant, important political connections. Soon, he’s the right-hand-man of the rebel who intends to overthrow the current government, which is totally corrupt.
Helen’s own past is equally unsettled, as much as anything because of her work with depressed people. Their cases overflow into her own “emptiness,” nowhere better exemplified than in her relationship with her mother, from whom it seems impossible to break away. But, then, suddenly, Isaac appears in her life and the two—both horribly lonely—are drawn together. The problem is that as the two of them become entwined, Isaac’s year as a student in the United States is drawing to a close. His visa will expire and he will have to return to East Africa.
With that realization, Isaac tells Helen about his involvement in the revolution that he and others hoped would liberate the country from its corrupt and crony leadership. As Isaac tells Helen about the riots at the university, Helen remembers the period of student unrest on university campuses in America, the killings at Kent State. And the carnage in African countries, post-Independence? The other Isaac observes, “No one needs to learn how to kill, but it took foreigners who came to Africa to show us that it meant nothing to do so.”
If that looks like finger pointing, it isn’t. Rather, Mengestu seamlessly weaves together a disturbing story of parallel lives and plots. There are telling similarities between student unrest in Africa and in America, the dreams of young adults everywhere, particularly when they are thwarted by prejudice and racialism. Helen and Isaac are forced to sneak around Laurel, concealing their relationship, because they understand that people in the community cannot accept the mingling of the races. Yet the love between these two characters is rendered with great tenderness and respect to the background of intrigue, political and social unrest. We are not that different, after all, in spite of what bigots profess. And our names, all our names? Well, I’ll leave that for you to discover in this magnificent novel.
Dinaw Mengestu: All Our Names
Knopf, 288 pp., $25.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His many books include The Ordeal of the African Writer (2001). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.