An extraordinary life in exile inspires a multilayered novel.
With perhaps a nod toward Kafka, Swedish novelist Anyuru (They Will Drown in Their Mothers' Tears, 2019, etc.) opens on a protagonist named only as P facing his interrogators, who ask him, “Why did you come back?” “Back” is to Africa, where P says he has returned with an offer to fly a crop duster in Zambia. He had left his native Uganda some years earlier to train as a fighter pilot in Greece. After Idi Amin staged his coup in 1971 and began executing some of those who had resisted him, P felt he could not return home. Greece, in the midst of its own political upheaval, said he could no longer fly. He had no home to return to in Africa, no home that would accept him in Europe. His passport had become worse than useless; he feared it might provide evidence against him. He has no idea what those holding him think his crimes might be. They have no idea where his loyalty lies. Perhaps he has no idea where his loyalty lies. “If you disappeared one day, just disappeared, who would miss you?” he was asked. And now he knows that no one would. Until a different narrative perspective enters the novel, a first-person narrator that the reader identifies with the author, an unnamed narrator who says that P is his father and that P has been telling him the stories that have filled the novel, stories that the novelist has perhaps embellished, has certainly recast in his own words. Like the father, the son has no country, no place where the marriage of his Swedish mother and Ugandan father, who are now divorced, makes him feel at home. “I travel between places I try to form into a nation,” says the son. “I think about how I am a tree with its roots pulled up.” In other words, like father, like son. The presence of the son signals to the reader that P survived and escaped, that he lived to become a father, while the son’s story illuminates his father’s final days. As the father’s story progresses forward and the son’s looks backward, they meet in a place filled with “all these stories that try to figure out my origins,” says the son. “There is no history. I just come from here. From this summer, when my father is dying.”
A deeply moving meditation on identity and history, the personal and the political, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction.