A man caught between two worlds explores the ideals of belonging and friendship in Dinaw Mengestu’s melancholy third novel, All Our Names.
“[S]ilence isn’t the same when it’s shared. Its sad and lonely sides are shunted off,” the narrator says.
The Ethiopian-born writer was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2012 for “enriching [the] understanding of the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America in tales distilled from the experience of immigrants whose memories are seared by escape from violence in their homelands,” the Monitor reported at the time.
That theme is at the heart of his third novel, which is narrated by an unknown man in 1960s or ’70s Uganda and a young, disillusioned social worker in a Midwestern college town called Laurel. Both of them get involved with a man named Isaac.
“When I was born, I had thirteen names. Each name was from a generation, beginning with Father and going back from him,” the narrator tells a character. “On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me,” he says. “I shed those names just as our bus crossed the border into Uganda.”
The narrator, who dreams of attending the university in the capital, Kampala, becomes friends with Isaac, another would-be student who also lingers on campus during the last days of revolutionary fervor. Isaac tells him to choose a poet’s name, and the narrator christens himself Langston.
“Some students wanted war and revolution, while others only pretended to out of their own self-interest. Either way there was always a place for someone like me as long as I watched safely from the sidelines,” Langston says.
However, Isaac – charismatic, idealistic and a natural-born firebrand – has no intention of leaving his friend on the sidelines. He teaches the narrator how to identify a “real” revolutionary from among the wealthy poseurs. “Look at the shoes. Anyone who walks to campus has shoes as ruined as ours,” he said.
The novel toggles back and forth between Uganda and the Midwest, as a social worker named Helen, longing for adventure, falls into a relationship with one of her clients, who has escaped to the US on a student visa. Burned-out by dying clients and longing for travel, Helen exoticizes Isaac: “The more mystery I could attach to him, the more exceptional he became.”
Wistful Helen can’t begin to match Isaac’s magnetism, and the Ugandan thread of the narrative is by far the strongest. Isaac and the narrator launch a “paper revolution,” hanging up fliers with mock slogans like, “It is a Crime Against the Country to read this.”
Langston also begins a journal, of which he declares, “It was far from poetry, less than a journal, and worthless as history.”
It works awfully well as literature, however.Isaac becomes an instant celebrity on campus without ever taking a class. But the revolution soon trades paper for bullets and events take a grim turn. Mengestu reports on the increasing violence in a powerful, understated style – almost muting the most horrifying.
In both sides of his narrative, Mengestu explores the dangers of going through the motions, rather than living. “For weeks we were only visitors in our real lives, and even, we were terrible tourists,” Langston relates. Helen, meanwhile, says of her mother’s church-going and tea-drinking habits, “Those were only the rituals of life, performed faithfully as a substitute for the real thing.”
“Nothing traveled better than death,” Helen says, as her lover grieves for a lost friend.
That’s not strictly true. In this powerful novel, Mengestu makes the argument that memory and love are at least as portable.