In “All Our Names,” author Dinaw Mengestu uses alternating chapters to tell two halves of the same person’s story. Chapters titled “Isaac” tell of students involved in an uprising in post-colonial Uganda. Those titled “Helen” recount the experience of one of the uprising participants after he immigrates to a small town in the American Midwest.
We never know the name of the narrator in the Isaac chapters. He has emigrated from Ethiopia to Kampala, Uganda, very consciously and deliberately leaving behind his 13 names and his family’s long history in their village. He loves literature and dreams of being a writer. His many nicknames include “Langston” and “Professor.”
Hanging around a university in Kampala, he comes under the influence of Isaac, whose charisma makes him politically influential over the students even though he is not actually enrolled at the university. It’s never clear what exactly motivates the narrator to participate in the burgeoning underground political activities other than his admiration for and friendship with Isaac — and the fact that he has left everything else he knows behind in the village.
The two men get involved in clandestine political activities that become increasingly more militant. Isaac attends secret meetings involving people who have very specific plans. Langston, only along as Isaac’s sidekick, is nevertheless pulled in further. The plans for revolution don’t go as intended.
In the chapters entitled Helen, the narrator is a social worker employed by a relief service in a small Midwestern town. She visits and supports not only the aged and infirm but also a recent African immigrant known as Isaac. Helen, who lives with her mother, has very little social life. Isaac lives in a spare apartment, knows no one in town besides Helen and has few activities other than spending all day at the campus library. Helen’s boss calls him “Dickens” because of the formality of his English. Helen says, “Compared with others, Isaac was made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in.”
Perhaps because neither has many options, the two quite quickly become intimate. But lots of sex does not overcome the distance between them. Helen characterizes their relations as “barren.” However, despite the challenges for a relationship like theirs in Middle America in the late ’60s/early ’70s, eventually they both believe they love each other. The final chapter may provide a realistic glimmer of hope.
In certain respects, “All Our Names” offers very little detail. Important events are sometimes drawn with a crayon. At times, however, Mengestu provides descriptive observations of people’s mannerisms and their motivations for doing small things. Overall, there is more attention to small details than to larger ones. This technique may not satisfy all readers.
Each of the main characters has become unmoored. Langston leaves his village for the big city, leaving his names behind with no intention of returning. Isaac throws himself totally into a revolution with an unpredictable future. Helen, although having always lived in the same small town, has never had a place of her own and leads a very empty life. In the U.S., Isaac has almost no friends or acquaintances other than Helen.
This is a mysterious book. Somehow, it reminded me of the movie “Memento,” where the actor Guy Pearce has no memory, and the film presents chapters of his story in reverse order. As a result, the viewer doesn’t know what has precipitated the events — that is, how the story started — until the movie is over. In a similar way, it is only toward the end of the book that the reader understands how Isaac’s story led to Helen’s story.
Mengestu emigrated from Ethiopia to the U.S. when he was a boy. His two previous novels met with substantial acclaim, and he has received the
MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant.” In 2008, the Seattle Public Library chose his novel “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” for the annual Seattle Reads program
Although he has won a lot of awards, I am not as unreservedly enthusiastic about this book as some of his other readers. But I’m enthusiastic enough that I look forward to returning to his earlier tale, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” which the New York Times describes as “a great African novel, a great Washington [D.C.] novel, and a great American novel.”