April 27, 2014

What’s in a name? More than identity

“All Our Names” by Dinaw Mengestu (Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $25.95)

“All Our Names” by Dinaw Mengestu (Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $25.95)

All three of Dinaw Mengestu’s novels are about people who, for various reasons, come to this country and fashion new lives. But it would be a huge mistake – it would be an insult, in fact – to call him a novelist of “the immigrant experience” or a chronicler of “life on the hyphen” or any of the other shabby, summary cliches deployed to characterize (and too often diminish and even dismiss) authors whose birth certificates identify them as foreign-born.

For while questions of race, ethnicity and point of origin do crop up repeatedly in Mengestu’s fiction, they are merely his raw materials, the fuel with which he so artfully – but never didactically – kindles disruptive, disturbing stories exploring the puzzles of identity, place and human connection.

Mengestu began this exploration with his dazzling first novel, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” and extended it in “How to Read the Air.” Good as they were, those books now look like warm-up acts. For with “All Our Names,” he has grounded his search in a story so straightforward but at the same time so mysterious that you can’t turn the pages fast enough, and when you’re done, your first impulse is to go back to the beginning and start over.

“All Our Names” employs two narrators, Isaac and Helen, whose very different tales alternate throughout the novel. Isaac’s story begins when he leaves his home in Ethiopia to attend college in Uganda in the early 1970s. Colonialism is dead, but the era of the dictators is looming, and like so many young Africans at that time, Isaac is intoxicated by the possibilities of new beginnings and self-invention.

“When I was born,” he says, “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.”

For his part, though, Isaac feels burdened, if not cursed, by his patrimony. “I felt as if I had been born into a prison,” he says, and he implored his father for years, ultimately successfully, to send him away to school. “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.”

Helen is the social worker assigned to Isaac’s case when he arrives as a foreign exchange student in the Midwestern college town where she works. To her, he is pure mystery, an immigrant with no past, a client of social services whose folder contains only “a single loose leaf of paper. ... There was no month or date of birth, only a year. His place of birth was listed only as Africa, with no country or city. The only solid fact was his name, Isaac Mabira, but even that was no longer substantial: Any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would have changed.”

But if Isaac is an enigma to Helen – someone “made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in” – she is also something of a stranger to herself, an unreflective product of Midwestern mores. Even her own name has no resonance for her: “My father named me Helen for reasons he said he couldn’t remember.”

Helen’s account begins when Isaac arrives in her town. His starts years earlier, when he is drawn into the revolutionary fervor burning through the campus in Kampala, the city and ultimately the whole country. Mengestu, who seems to have been born knowing how to play with time in a novel, interweaves these two stories, so we witness Helen’s budding curiosity about Isaac at the same time he is describing the events that will eventually land him in America with a past he is at pains to conceal. Both stories are about love. In Helen’s case, it’s her romance with Isaac. In Isaac’s, it’s his platonic devotion to another Isaac, a fellow student who leads him ever further into politics and ultimately bloodshed. By setting his narratives back-to-back in the early to mid-1970s, Mengestu manages to make race and questions of racial identity the unifying threads tying these two very different love stories together.

In the wake of colonialism, Isaac and his college compatriots wrestle with such questions almost constantly: Are they nationalists, pan-Africans or something else? For Helen, notions of identity were nebulous at best before she met Isaac, and race wasn’t much of an issue.

“We weren’t divided like the South and had nothing to do with any of the large cities in the North,” she explains. “We were exactly what geography had made us: middle of the road, never bitterly segregated, but with lines dividing black from white all over town, whether in neighborhoods, churches, schools or parks. We lived semi-peacefully apart, like a married couple in separate wings of a large house.”

Isaac is a man, we come to realize over the course of the novel, who has had everything taken from him: his friends, his culture, even his name. Like most of the immigrants in Mengestu’s fiction, he has not come to America to find the land of opportunity; he has come because he has nowhere else to go and because there is nothing to go back to. His story’s harshest irony is that he begins by rather archly turning his back on his past, by styling himself an outsider, only to see everything in his subsequent self-creation stripped from him bit by bit. By the time he arrives in America, all he knows is that he can take nothing for granted, that nothing is ever settled.

Knowledge is the only power Isaac has, and he wields it like a weapon to awaken Helen to the dangers of their affair. But while she, like Isaac, is feckless at the outset, she is not fickle, and she remains faithful to him despite his riddlesome secrecy and their shared awareness that their romance has no future. If their relationship is one of shared dependencies, it is also, in very different ways, redemptive for them both.

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