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From the Hardcover edition.
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 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.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, andThe Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.
Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson
1. Why do you think the author has chosen the title All Our Names for this novel? Why doesn’t the author immediately reveal the name(s) of the narrator of the chapters entitled “Isaac”? When does the narrator take the name Isaac? How many other names has he had? What are some of the names given to him and what is their significance? Why does he give up some of these names?
2. Consider the structure of the novel. Why do you think the author has chosen to alternate between two overlapping storylines and to include two narrators rather than one? What common themes do the alternating narrators help to reveal about the common experiences of the characters? Does this form allow us to make any generalizations about the common human experience? Alternatively, how might the form of the novel help to inform us about the separateness and loneliness of the human experience? What forms does this help to reinforce?
3. How do Isaac and the male narrator first meet? What do they share in common? What draws them together? How does their relationship evolve over the course of the novel? Do they seem to have a traditional relationship? How can their relationship be characterized? At the story’s end, how do they come to characterize their own relationship?
4. On the bus ride to the capital at the start of the story, why does the narrator imagine the capital being nameless?
5. The male narrator notes that there is a difference in the relationship that he and Isaac each has with Uganda. What are these differences and how might they explain the courses of action that the characters take as the story unravels?
6. Why do Isaac and the narrator refer to many of the boys as “Alex”? What meaning does this name have? Likewise, later in the story, who does the male narrator refer to as “Adam”? What does this repetition of names reveal?
7. What is the “paper revolution”? Why does Isaac hang the flyer that describes the crimes against the country? What is the effect of this propaganda? The last time he sees his friend, at the conclusion of the story, what does Isaac add to this list of crimes?
8. Upon meeting Isaac, Helen recognizes that she had several preconceptions about African people. What are some of these preconceptions and how do they change throughout the story? How do the other Midwesterners respond to Isaac? Alternatively, how does Isaac respond to their treatment of him?
9. Why does Helen bring Isaac to the diner she went to as a child? How are they treated there? Does this experience bring them closer or cause a rift between them?
10. Why does it bother Helen that Isaac’s apartment is exceptionally clean? What does it indicate about Isaac and about their relationship? Why does she intentionally make a mess in his absence? Where do we find this scenario changed later in the story and what does it seem to indicate about the evolution of their relationship?
11. Helen observes of Isaac, “Being occasionally called ‘boy’ or ‘nigger,’as he was, didn’t compare to having no one who knew him before he had come here” (page 22). What does she mean by this? Consider and discuss the themes of exile, family, and the effects of history—both personal and cultural—in the book. What other examples of feelings of foreignness are evidenced among the book’s characters? Consider, for instance, David’s description of coming to the city and Helen’s experience of Chicago.
12. Why does Helen say that it is possible that “regardless of what we do, we are tied to all the prejudices in our country and the crimes that come with them” (page 113)? What does she mean? Do you agree?
13. When Isaac was a child and afraid of the dark, hat story did his father tell him? What does Isaac suspect his father hoped it would accomplish? His father tells him the story is true, and Isaac confesses that he believed it in that “way that children have of dismissing reality in the hope of finding something better” (129). Where in the story do we see evidence of others dismissing reality in the hope of finding something better? Do they succeed?
14. Evaluate setting. How does the author’s “visual” portrait of place inform us about the state of the characters? How does the Midwestern landscape compare to the African landscape? What seems to be at the root of these commonalities? Likewise, what differences are evident in the landscapes and, besides obvious geographical factors, what is responsible for these differences?
15. There are many examples of violence in the story. Do we have a sense of who is “right” and who is “wrong” in these instances? What are some of the most surprising examples of violence and what seem to be the causes? What do the people in the book fight for? Is there ultimately any sense of justice or greater good noted in the novel or is the violence portrayed as senseless? What view of war does the author seem to present? What does the narrator’s prayer (page 214) seem to indicate about the nature of war?
16. Isaac says that there is no place in the world he has felt fully at ease. Worse, he says, is dreaming of belonging to a place that will never have you. What does he mean by this? Consider the themes of belonging and exile in the novel. Where do readers find examples of characters struggling to belong or otherwise not being able to belong? If they are unable to belong, what prevents this? Are there any indications of what evokes a sense of belonging?
17. Who gives Helen the idea to go to Chicago? Why does she take Isaac there? How does the experience of being somewhere neither has ever been affect their relationship?
18. Isaac says that rescue “is the true heart behind romance and fairy tale” (page 109). What does he mean by this? Considering the relationships among the characters, does this seem to be true? Can All Our Names be thought of as a fairy tale?
19. When our male narrator indicates that he wants to write about the violence he has witnessed, Isaac tells him to write something nice instead. “No one needs to read this,” he says (page 233). What does the novel suggest about the value of written history? What is the purpose of writing about violence and war? Alternatively, what does the novel seem to suggest about truth in storytelling? Are all the stories told in the novel “true”? How do we know that Helen and Isaac are reliable storytellers?
20. At the conclusion of the story, after saying goodbye to Helen, Isaac reads his friend’s note: “No one will have ever loved each other more than we did” (page 255). How does Mengestu’s story challenge traditional notions of the “love story”? What kinds of love are depicted in the story? What are the challenges or obstacles to these kinds of love and what is the outcome?
Posted April 2, 2014
Posted April 2, 2014