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


Neel Mukherjee
Thursday 05 June 2014 13:41
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

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