All Our Names
272 pp., $25.95
All Our Names
Dinaw Mengestu retreads some familiar territory in his latest novel, All Our Names. He has always made his thematic home in the immigrant experience (his family left Ethiopia when he was two years old), and both of his two previous novels, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air, center on the attempts of Ethiopian immigrants to build a life in America after fleeing the violence of revolution. In All Our Names, however, the clock is set with a one-year visa instead of a new American life, and the immigrant in question is caught somewhere in the uncomfortable space between victim and perpetrator.
The narrative shifts between two perspectives. There is Isaac, an Ethiopian living in Kampala, Uganda, who spends his days haunting the grounds of the university, pretending to be a student and listening in on political demonstrations. And there is Helen, the white Midwestern social worker to whom Isaac is assigned when he arrives in America many months later. In Kampala, Isaac (who has not yet been gifted the name he will go by for the rest of the story) befriends the original Isaac, another pretend-student whose revolutionary spark is unsatisfied by the courtyard sit-ins that are the extent of his peers' action. In America, Helen and Isaac secretly begin a relationship made difficult by small-town racism and the silence surrounding Isaac's past.
On the surface, there aren't supposed to be a lot of surprises here. We know that Isaac's share of the narrative will end in a violent unraveling spurred by the political fervor of his best friend and the mood of his generation, a catastrophe from which he emerges with his friend's name and visa. And we know that Helen's relationship with Isaac is temporary, that her story will end with them saying goodbye. Such narrative structures can't rely on plot progression for their energy; they live on a well-crafted atmosphere of unease dogging every step into the expected, on details sufficiently arresting to create something that isn't quite what the reader has imagined.
For the most part, Mengestu succeeds at this. Isaac and Helen's relationship is more interesting for being doomed; there's a vibrancy to their hesitancy and their halting attempts to know each other that wouldn't exist otherwise. Isaac's story in the months before he meets Helen plays out on a much grander scale of political intrigue but somehow lacks this energy. It's a slow slide into inevitable and senseless violence that, while haunting and disturbingly written, doesn't quite rise out of the realm of predictability until the last thirty pages. Once it does, it's unforgettable, but it takes Mengestu longer than it should to get there.
Consequently I found Isaac's perspective more thematically than narratively compelling. He and his fellow university students are the children of those who fought for (and won) independence. As they come of age, it is clear that all is not as it should be on their continent, that something somewhere has gone very wrong. They are as convinced as their predecessors were that they will be the ones to make things right, to usher in the revolution that should have been. Their various idealistic movements occupy different corners of campus, one breed of Marxist ferociously differentiated from another. And yet, Isaac notes, these same young men will be pillaging government funds in a matter of a few years. Why?
Everything back then was supposed to be ours. The city, this country, Africa—they were there for the taking, and, at least in that regard, our approach to the future was no different from that of the Englishmen who preceded us.
This interweaving of responsibility between African and imperialist comes up repeatedly throughout the book. "No one needs to learn how to kill," Isaac says, "but it took the foreigners who came to Africa to show us that it meant nothing to do so." Mengestu is addressing one of the profoundest questions that arises in the face of the horrors of Africa's post-independence decades: Whose fault is this?
The answer is a paradox. There is a whole terrible, unasked-for history breathing down the neck of a man with a gun, but at the same time there is just one man, in one moment, making a decision. And there is everyone who does not stop him. Back in Ethiopia, Isaac's father used to tell him a story about a mythical city where the citizens had to work together to dream of every street and building each night if they wanted all of it to continue to exist when they woke the next day. When they began to tire of dreaming of the same thing over and over, one young man volunteered to dream of the whole city each night for everyone. As buildings, streets, and people slowly disappeared, the citizens realized that they didn't remember their town well enough to take up their old responsibilities: "It was years since anyone had looked at the city closely—at first because they were free to forget it, and later because they were embarrassed and then too afraid to see what they had let it become." The fault belongs to everyone.