All Our Names

Since the 1960s, Africa’s progress into the postcolonial period has been on a wide river of blood. (The colonial era wasn’t exactly a party, either.) In the span of a few decades the continent experienced thirteen presidential assassinations and more than seventy coups. The Second Congo War caused the deaths of five and a half million people; possibly a million were murdered in Rwanda in 1994 alone; hundreds of thousands are believed to have died as a result of continuing war in Sudan. If these numbers are numbing, inconceivable — and they are — a writer who takes them as his subject could not rely on any one schema if he wanted to fairly represent the scope of such catastrophe. He could only have recourse to both ends of the literary spectrum, from parable to personal.

Yet writing them simultaneously is like juggling one ball in two time zones: a job for a magician. Dinaw Mengestu is that wizard, a literary virtuoso who, in his new novel, All Our Names, makes the impossible look simple. In fact, he gives it a sense of inevitability: there is an imperative factuality to his tale of two bright young men who become friends in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. There, on the grounds of a university at which neither of them is matriculated, they   help foment yet another “people’s liberation” (fought by “poor illiterate boys who by dint of a uniform and a week of training were called soldiers”) that ends just like all the ones before and, it is implied, after: in a disintegrating chaos that serves only to liberate its participants from life itself.

The culminating scene, in which a “slow, winding parade of tired and wounded refugees” wander dazed into a village and today’s generals summarily execute yesterday’s, has the aura of documentary, truthfully (and depressingly) rendered. This could only be the record of a firsthand witness, and indeed the author, who left his native Ethiopia for the United Sates when he was two, reported on the ongoing calamity in Darfur in 2006 for Rolling Stone. The fictionalized account in All Our Names has the timelessness of an endlessly repeated human madness as well as the specificity of the mess left behind in much of Africa after nearly a century of colonial subjugation: an agitator “had many people killed before he died. I think now he had only done what the British had taught him,” opines the nameless (but hardly unnamed) narrator.

Expressing a predominant theme of the book, that of naming as a mode of genesis (“in the beginning was the word”) as well as a form of knowledge and bondage both, the dual protagonists have but one name in two bodies. This metaphor for self-invention becomes concrete as the chapters alternate and draw together, one from the mystifying scene in Africa, the next from the near future in a “quiet, semi-rural Midwestern town” after one of the friends has immigrated and become involved with his white caseworker. For the purpose of identifying these characters, Mengestu could only choose Isaac, the only biblical patriarch whose name is never changed. (One of the two friends early on sheds all his thirteen familial names until he is the blank page upon which a new story can begin; we never know any of them, yet the forward motion of the story is made manifest in his sequential assumption of every self-appointed alias the new Africa can permit.) Isaac is also the one who stood ready to sacrifice all: his namesake here does the same in the form of his identity and its earthly vessel, the altar to which he is bound that of friendship. His sacrifice in this case, though, is called for not by a god of mercy but that of hopelessness. All Our Names is a consummate novel of politics, of the general insanity of violence in its name and the specific brutality of its appearance in postcolonial Africa. It is also an affecting portrait of the redemptive powers of all the varieties of love.  

The theme of successive revolutions that become something of a national bad habit, like nail biting (only fatal), could have tempted a lesser writer to drop ironies with all the subtle weight of anvils, but Mengestu’s restraint in their use gives them paradoxical power. It is said, of a post-coup network of security checkpoints in the city at which the names and occupations of everyone who passes must be logged, “No bureaucracy in the country until then had ever worked properly”; initially, the two friends start a “paper revolution” that is more  theater of the absurd than anything else:  Responding to the propagandistic doublespeak of the revolutionaries who have come before him, Isaac asks “Why should they be the only ones who get to say stupid things?”

All Our Names inspires a rare complex of responses in the reader. One is appreciation for the author’s uncanny ability to create characters who at once express universal themes and remain highly individual, their humanity neatly observed (“I tried not to think of dying, but that, of course, was the easiest way of ensuring that it was all I could think about”). Another is wonder at its formal intricacy, which uses the spare means of a cross-cut narrative to make postcolonial Africa line up perfectly with post-Reconstruction America. Finally, there is gratitude. Africa represents a scene of destructive horror from which we have historically turned our faces away (since we can) and because to look is to not know where to look. Mengestu shows us exactly where. Here, its human heart. And despite the pain of sometimes watching it break, he also makes it a pleasure to do so.