When the anthropologist discovers a deception that shatters his grief and guilt, he begins to reevaluate his love for his wife as well as his friendship with one of the nomads he studied. He returns to Africa to make sense of what happened, traveling into the far reaches of the Chalbi Desert, where he must sift through the layers of his memories and reconcile them with what he now knows.
Set in a windswept wilderness menaced by hyenas and lions, The Names of Things weaves together the stories of an anthropologist's journey into the desert, his firsthand accounts of the nomads' death rituals, and his struggle to find the names of things for which no words exist.
Anthropologist John Colman Wood's debut novel is an exquisite, haunting exploration of the meaning of love and the rituals of grief.
|Publisher:||Byte Level Research|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.62(d)|
About the Author
His fiction has appeared in Anthropology and Humanism, and he has twice won the Ethnographic Fiction Prize of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, once for a story extracted from The Names of Things.
He is the author of When Men Are Women: Manhood among Gabra Nomads of East Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999). Before becoming an anthropologist, Wood was a journalist.
Read an Excerpt
The Names of Things
By John Colman Wood
Ashland Creek PressCopyright © 2012John Colman Wood
All rights reserved.
He and the boy had been walking, save a couple of hours in the hottest part of afternoon, since the quarter moon rose at two o'clock that morning. From the settlement of Maikona on the edge of the Chalbi Desert, they skirted the Dida Galgalo plains, where you could look in every direction and not see one tree or even a bush, only lava rubble the color of rotted apples and grass between rocks, yellow as packing straw. The emptiness comforted him. The flat horizon, swept daily by unceasing wind, calmed his mind. He missed the place. He missed the people. But he also wanted the desiccation, the osmotic suck, to wipe his memories clean and blow them away.
They'd left at two o'clock in the morning because the trip at a camel's pace would take them eighteen hours, and they wanted to arrive when the camp was still awake. Two o'clock was also when the moon came up, slim as it was, and they needed its light to load the camels withjerry cans of water and their gear and to find the path amid the stones.
The owner of the camels, the boy's father, had known Abudo, knew where Abudo's camp was, and sent his son to show the way. The foreigner did not remember the boy, who would have been a child before. Now a teenager, Ali was tall, narrow, small shouldered, long legged. His almond face was handsome except for the pebbles of acne around his mouth. Ali refused his mother's help. In the end, she'd stepped in to reposition the loads and tighten the ropes. Ali made up for his lack of skill with teenage indifference. When he smiled, which in the beginning was not at all, the smile was shy and surprising.
* * *
They stopped to rest soon after daylight. So far they'd barely spoken. They sat in the shade of a low-slung tree on the edge of a lagga, a dry seasonal riverbed, and chewed tobacco. The camels, still loaded, browsed lazily at the branches of a nearby tree. The ferenji wore plain khaki shorts and a T-shirt and a canvas hat for the sun. The boy wore a black T-shirt and a kikoi made of Indonesian cloth with a jungle of green and blue potato-print shapes. Both wore sandals made of old tires—young people called them Firestones—the commonest footwear in the desert. The metal band of Ali's watch was too big for his wrist. He kept pulling it up his arm, and it kept falling down to his hand. The watch did not keep time, but it looked smart and Ali was proud of it. He sat with knees crossed and studied the plains beyond the shade.
He asked the boy how old he was.
Kudanijaa, he said. Sixteen.
Are you circumcised?
He might have asked if the boy was in school or played basketball. It was the sort of question he asked. What did Ali think of himself? Was he a boy or a man?
Ali opened the cloth, just like that, and showed him.
His penis lay like a cat against his thigh. The wound, a jagged pink ring.
The man remembered the way he and boyhood friends had shown off playground scars. It wasn't the penis that Ali revealed, or even his new status as a grown-up. It was the sign of where he'd been, what he'd been through, what awaited him. He said he was cut last Soom D'era, a good month for circumcisions.
Ali did not ask the man if he was circumcised. He asked if he was married, and then if it was the custom in his country to pay bride wealth before a marriage and how much.
The man said there was no bride wealth in his country. Then he added, in his own language, for he could not think how to say it in Ali's, that over there one paid for the marriage afterward. Ali did not follow, and the man did not repeat it. But Ali's eyes grew wide with a vision of free women. He was going to have to wait another twenty years before his father and older brother, who must marry before him, would produce the necessary camels, goats, sheep, cloth, and untold amounts of tobacco and coffee berries for the bride's family. In the end, however, Ali likened a free wife to a lover and said it was better if the groom's family paid for the bride. Then the children knew to whom they belonged. The man said he and his wife had had no children, and Ali looked at him sadly, despite his adolescence, because he knew to be sad about such things.
Nuyas, he said. Let's go.
Silence broken, Ali's talk soon outpaced the man's ill-remembered language. By afternoon they were walking again mostly in silence, smiling at each other, noting familiar kinds of tree or bush, stopping to chew and to wonder aloud how much longer.
* * *
Even before they reached Abudo's camp it was too dark to see, and he kept the path by following the camels' silhouettes against the stars. All day the windblown sand had chafed his skin. His neck and arms and calves prickled with sunburn. His feet, which had taken a beating on the rocks, ached. He walked with a sort of double limp, so as not to put full weight on either sole. He'd grown soft in his years away, unused to walking far in sandals. He'd filleted a big toe on an acacia stump first thing, and the blood made his right sandal sticky. In the gloom that evening, he stumbled and reopened the wound. He could feel the slick fresh blood. He cursed himself for coming.
Then he heard the camp noises. Faint, windblown sounds. Clatter of pots. Wooden camel bells. Tinny voices of women and children, like old songs on the radio. He smelled wood smoke and dust and the musky odors of large animals.
As he remembered it, the camp was a collection of some twenty tents, sixty or seventy people, four or five hundred camels, and thousands of sheep and goats. It was pitched now at Toricha, a place of gnarled thorn scrub below the hills of Badda Hurri, far to the north of where they'd started. He remembered Toricha from before. The sounds and smells in the night air were all familiar. But it was not the same. Nomads never camped in the same place twice. It was their business to move, to blow with the wind. Doubtless there would be people here he knew, who remembered him. There would be others he did not know. And there would be those he knew, and loved, who would be gone.
Excerpted from The Names of Things by John Colman Wood. Copyright © 2012 by John Colman Wood. Excerpted by permission of Ashland Creek Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thought this book was a wonderful written book based on a anthropologist's view of the world. I like the descriptions of the people the anthropologist studied, I liked the way that the story itself was interspersed with quotes from the book the anthropologist had "written." I also liked how it showed us that all people no matter their culture deal with the same events and emotions. We just deal with it differently. I wish it had ended differently because the ending was a little disappointing to me, and it is vulgar in a few places which might offend a few readers. It is also a bit slow going but the journey is definitely worth it. It is a nicely written novel about a man dealing with grief and I enjoyed it.
I was almost an anthropologist. I majored in the subject in college, drawn to it by my own unusual childhood, which was spent traveling for years among different cultures than that of my birth. The fundamentals of anthropological field work resonated with me: always observing and learning, participating only at arm's length, yet somehow making usefulness out of the loneliness of never quite belonging. I found appealing this idea that somehow there was a special point to a liminal existence, that only one who was outside could adequately translate one culture for another. However, I didn't end up becoming an anthropologist. I fell in love and decided that I couldn't ask my husband to traipse through the wilderness with me. Not to mention that after having already spent years traipsing through the wilderness, I had adapted pretty well to the softness of belonging and having.The unnamed narrator of The Names of Things had no such compunction. He brings his wife, a painter, with him to Africa, for his extended field work with the Dasse people, often disappearing off into the desert for weeks at a time. In his mind, she could paint anywhere, so her eventual objections to the locale are moot, especially as he has committed himself irrevocably at that point to the focus of his work. Finally they compromise and she takes up residence in a larger, more temperate community farther away from the Chalbi desert. That compromise, which seems at the time to save their marriage and his career, leads to an an accident and an illness that takes everything away.This is a slow and thoughtful book, beautifully written. At first I was uncertain about the use of third-person narrative interspersed with first-person book and journal entries, until I realized that the format perfectly portrays the narrator's biggest quandary: he views life, even his own life, through the eyes of an anthropologist, always observing, explaining, and rationalizing what he sees and experiences, rather than directly experiencing the events themselves. When confronted by the greatest loss of his life, and a revelation that may or may not explain or undermine that loss, he struggles to know his own reaction, almost as if he were a stranger to himself, an observer lost in his own mind. He is confronted by grief that rituals do not heal, a mystery that reason cannot solve, and a journey that appears to have no purpose or ending other than one he invents for it.This is an impressive novel, well informed by the experience of the author, an anthropologist himself and also a talented writer who reminded me of the wonderful Oliver La Farge. The book balances realistic ethnography with insightfulness, in particular, the extraordinary insight that so much of insight itself is colored by the one doing the seeing. Knowing the names of things does not allow one to know the things themselves. I received an early review copy of this book.
Life, love, death, & betrayal; they are all in the Names Of Things. The story jumps from a present day journey to memories of an anthropologist. He just lost his wife to disease, and took a trip back to the Dasse clan that he visited years ago. The names of the couple or the disease are never mentioned, which might keep you from connecting with them. But the story itself is interesting and captivating.
An anthropologist goes on a pilgrimage across northeast Africa after the death of his wife, coming to terms with her loss and wondering whether he really even knew her at all. It's interesting that I can't tell you the anthropologist's name, as I don't believe it is ever mentioned in the book. He is simply referred to as "he" and "him", or by the native word "ferenji" used for Westerners. Likewise his wife is simply referred to as "she". This story is at once very simple, getting to the heart of the matter, without excessive flourish or glamor, and yet it is complex, winding around on itself. There isn't a great amount of dialogue in the book, as the majority of the story is self-discovery and the discovery of truth. All of his interaction in the story is with the Africans he encounters and stays with during his journey, and they are a simple and quiet people, not given to excessive chatting. There are some interesting transitions between chapters where bits of the Dasse culture are revealed. The author writes of "rituals that surround death and dying", allowing a glimpse into Dasse society, and giving the reader a better understanding of these people that the anthropologist and his wife lived with and studied. After his artist wife dies from an unnamed disease that sounds suspiciously like AIDS, the anthropologist begins to look through her journals and questions arise, causing him to embark on a trek back to the village of his friend Abudo, in hopes of finding answers. My final word: This was an enjoyable read, and went fairly quickly. The author is very adept at bringing you into the story with lovely description that isn't overdone, and a writing style that can flow from verbose to rather clipped, the anthropologist varying from very logical reasoning that examines his own life with scientific precision to reflecting on beautifully sensitive and emotional moments with his wife in their life together. A lovely little story.
Incredible! Just an amazing read...it really is an experience rather than just a book. Wonderfully written and it told a heart-warming story that cannot be missed. A MUST-READ!
“You seized a bit of life, and life damaged you.” The Names of Things, by John Colman Wood, tells the story of an unnamed anthropologist studying the nomadic Dasse people of the Chalbi Desert. In his field work, he observes the customs and rituals, as well as the normal day-to-day interactions, of the camel-herding Dasse. He is entranced by them, falling easily into their life. He builds a friendship with one of the nomadic men. The anthropologist’s wife, an artist, goes with him. She does not adjust, merely endures. She complains to him, but these go unheeded. He thinks that she can paint anywhere and shouldn't really mind the upheaval of her life. As he becomes more involved in his work, his wife slips further away from him. Eventually, she is lost entirely. The anthropologist must then sift through his grief and the deceptive past to find answers. He returns to the desert, the scene of the crime, to make sense of things. “Death is a strange betrayal. The dead leave the living more certainly than if they’d run off with a lover.” Told in alternating first-person and third-persons narration, the reader gets a multifaceted look into the anthropologist’s life. The third-persons drives home the notion that this man is an observer, even of his own life. He is an anthropologist through and through. Still, the overall tone is intimate and personal. We feel very close to this man. The anthropologists’ sorrows and desires become our own. The desert wilderness comes to life as well. The people, animals, and scenery are wonderfully described. Dasse burial rituals are very detailed. The reader is fully drawn into this world. “All I wanted was to sing and dance and share the delight and seriousness of that night, and my desire to do so, a desire which arose from the differences between us, my incapacity, my lack of understanding, was the very thing that held me back.” This book is not a thrill ride, not an adventure. It is quiet and contemplative, lyrical and flowing. The story is deceptively simple: what seems like a meandering tale turns into a poignant and evocative look at love, loss, and grief.
I just finished The Names of Things and am already counting the list of people I know who need to read this book. It is a deceptively quiet novel, following an anthropologist's journey through Africa as he searches for answers and peace after his wife's death. Wood's descriptions of the landscape, people, and animals are stunning. The reader is drawn wholly into this world, haunted as the anthropologist is haunted, yearning for what he cannot find, and captivated by his dance with death and grief.