All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu, book review: From African frying pan to American fire

 

Anaemic work: Author Dinaw Mengestu
Anaemic work: Author Dinaw Mengestu

In this third novel, the Ethiopian-born American novelist Dinaw Mengestu returns to many of the themes that marked his award-winning first, Children of the Revolution: migration to the USA from Africa; the problematics of assimilation and race; a strangely passive, even inert, protagonist mired in melancholia; an inter-racial romance and its fallout.

The device of braiding past (Ethiopia) and present (Washington) that he used in his first novel also recurs in All Our Names, this time with only the names of the strands and the locations changed: in alternating chapters, we have Isaac, narrating the past in Uganda, and Helen, the present in a small Midwestern town called Laurel.

The story of Helen, a social carer, begins when Isaac, newly arrived from Africa, is assigned to her. His file contains barely any information and she is discouraged from asking for more. The relationship between them starts almost from the very outset; it is a furtive affair hidden from public knowledge, even from overt or stated mutual acknowledgement by the lovers themselves. Helen, who has an intuitive understanding of the collective mentality of smalltown USA in the 1970s, especially in its unreconstructed hostility to black people, has her fears confirmed at the local diner where she takes Isaac for lunch one day.

The narrative headed "Isaac" begins with the arrival in Kampala of an unnamed first person narrator, who has left his impoverished life in Ethiopia to reinvent himself as a writer. The Isaac in this story is not Helen's Isaac, instead, the person he strikes up a friendship with while hanging out at the university campus, both of them pretending to be members of the official student community, which they are too poor to be really part of. How this unnamed narrator becomes the Isaac of Helen's story is crucial. It takes in the beginnings of dictatorships in the African continent after the departure of the white imperial powers, the brutal counter-insurgencies against them and the unimaginable cost paid by numberless lives caught up in the crossfire.

In Mengestu's work, often that cost is a very erasure of the self; a kind of transformation into a ghost within the frame of one's life. The chronological staggering of the dual strands creates a clever structure: we expect that they are either going to join up right at the end, or become one somewhere before the final pages and carry on as a unified track. In a way, Mengestu deftly does both, playing with readers' expectations and exploiting the gap in knowledge between how much they know and fear and how little Helen does.

Mengestu is a serious novelist and his great themes are nothing less than the long shadow cast by imperialism and the ways post-colonial societies remake themselves or, more crucially, fail to do so. The plangency that is the reigning tone of all his books is a finely calibrated, if involuntary, response of individual lives broken by the intractable forces of history.

But Mengestu has so hushed every aspect of All Our Names – plot, style, characterisation – that it results in a severely anaemic work. Perhaps this is meant to mirror the post-traumatic inertia that being a witness to extreme violence and horror has instilled in Isaac. The blanched, mercilessly stripped prose, which is the dominant and unquestioned orthodoxy of contemporary Anglophone fiction, especially that coming out of MFA courses, simply cannot rise to the importance of his subject. Where is the density that this kind of novel requires?

Neel Mukherjee's latest novel, 'The Lives of Others', is published by Chatto & Windus

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in