What’s in a name? Identity of a kind, perhaps, but nothing like stability, and perhaps nothing like truth. So Mengestu (How to Read the Air, 2010, etc.) ponders in this elegiac, moving novel, his third.
Himself an immigrant, Mengestu is alert to the nuances of what transplantation and exile can do to the spirit. Certainly so, too, is his protagonist—or, better, one of two protagonists who just happen to share a name, for reasons that soon emerge. One narration is a sequence set in and around Uganda, perhaps in the late 1960s or early 1970s, in a post-independence Africa. (We can date it only by small clues: Rhodesia is still called that, for instance, and not Zimbabwe.) But, as in a V.S. Naipaul story, neither the country nor the time matter much in a tale about human universals, in this case the universal longing for justice and our seemingly universal inability to achieve it without becoming unjust ourselves. The narrator, riding into the place he calls “the capital,” sheds his old identity straightaway: “I gave up all the names my parents had given me.” Isaac, whom he meets on campus, is, like him, a would-be revolutionary, and in that career trajectory lies a sequence of tragedies, from ideological betrayals to acts of murder. The region splintering, their revolution disintegrating, Isaac follows the ever-shifting leader he reveres into the mouth of hell. Meanwhile, Isaac—the name now transferred, along with a passport—flees to the snowy Midwest, where he assumes the identity of an exchange student, marked by a curious proclivity for Victorian English: “I remember thinking after that first afternoon that I felt like I was talking with someone out of an old English novel,” says the caseworker, Helen, with whom he will fall in love. Neither Isaac can forget the crimes he has witnessed and committed, and the arc of justice that each seeks includes personal accountability. Redemption is another matter, but both continue the fight, whether in the scrub forest of Africa or at a greasy spoon somewhere along the Mississippi River.
Weighted with sorrow and gravitas, another superb story by Mengestu, who is among the best novelists now at work in America.