Book by DINAW MENGESTU
In All Our Names, the Ethiopian-born novelist Dinaw Mengestu tells the story of two Isaacs and a Helen living, loving, and leaving each other—apparently in the 1970s. The story, which takes place in both Uganda, and a generic Midwestern U.S. town called Laurel, is narrated partly by Isaac, whose real name isn’t really Isaac (he is also called Langston, Professor, and Dickens at different times and by different people), and partly by Helen, the American social worker assigned to him after he comes to the U.S. to study at university.
The novel begins with the faux Isaac, almost twenty-five, leaving his village in Ethiopia for the Ugandan capital of Kampala, to “claim his share,” i.e. to become a famous writer, surrounded by like-minded men. There, he meets the other Isaac (whom we’ll call Isaac  for clarity) at the university, though neither Isaac is a student, and it is unclear whether the two men are like-minded. Their relationship and involvement with the revolution against Idi Amin makes up Isaac’s share of the narrative.
The love affair between Helen and Isaac makes up the second half of the story. The chapters bounce between Uganda and America, depending on who is narrating, and Isaac is at the center of both narratives—he is telling us one side of the story in Uganda, and on the other side, we have Helen telling the reader about his arrival in her town of Laurel. The dual narratives are supposed to compare and contrast Isaac’s life in these two worlds: the complications and challenges of his past and present lives; his motivations, heart, and soul. Supposed to.
Mengestu never tells us exactly when his novel takes place, embedding clues about time instead. But readers conversant with Ugandan politics will have little trouble deducing that the novel is set early into the brutal rule of Idi Amin, who declared himself president in 1971. Amin is referred to only as “the president,” in keeping with Mengestu’s generic approach to naming in the novel. The following passage exemplifies how he handles names and identity throughout:
The newspapers ran daily photographs of the president in various guises: the president as father, with a dozen children gathered around him; the president as village leader in a bright red-and-blue costume, using a walking stick, and the president as the intellectual statesman in a three-piece suit that tamed his massive girth and lent an air of sophistication to his bull-sized head.
The president is not a specific man—he is a symbol. The same principle applies to places. They may have names but are otherwise nondescript; Kampala is “the capital,” Laurel is “a quiet, semi-rural Midwestern town.” Representative people, representative places. By taking away people’s names and the characteristics that make them distinctive, Mengestu makes the reader question what really isin a name or an identity. Even his named characters feel like symbols because he gives them some of the most loaded names of the Western canon—Isaac, Joseph, Helen, David—though their names have little to no bearing on their character.
One question Mengestu seems to be posing is: who gets to do the naming, and which names count? This is implicit in a discussion between the Isaacs about Rhodesians: “If you say ‘Rhodesia’ they’ll tell you no such place exists. One boy told me that if I wanted to find Rhodesia I’d have to live inside of a white man’s head.”
Historically Western writers, and more generally western culture, have perceived Africa as dark—an overgrown blank. This reduction allowed the West to parcel off people and land over the centuries with very little regard to the accompanying devastation. Even the art that attempted to point out the inequity of colonialism espoused its reductive nature, as is contentiously displayed in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is this nameless, white-defined Africa that the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe opposed so strenuously in his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, and one of the first and most famous post-colonial African novels. However, Mengestu’s novel doesn’t and can’t be read as a postcolonial novel. Even in the 1970s, the issues plaguing Uganda were post-post-colonial: What happens now? Now that the white man with all his names and borders are gone?
As a political device, the ambiguity of names is successful in unmooring the reader from preconceived notions about Africa. As a narrative style, it is unclear and exclusionary. It cloaks the book’s plot and themes in vagueness. Who is talking? Where are we? What time period? There are moments when the reader (okay, this reader) took to reading online synopses of the novel to feel a little less lost. (Which this reader has never had to do before.)
For example, Isaac is actually our narrator’s third name. He shed his real name before he arrived in Uganda from Ethiopia, took a new name, and then shed that one when he left for America. Isaac was the name Isaac  gave him to leave Uganda with. The reader gets the feeling he’ll shed that one too when he leaves. And he will leave; Isaac’s aimlessness seems intended to reflect the aimlessness of Africa in that moment: the white man may be gone, but few, if any of the longed-for benefits of self-determination have accrued.
In the opening pages, Isaac says of Kampala:
… I knew Kampala was close, but even then I had already committed myself to thinking of it only as “the capital.” Kampala was too small for what I imagined. The city belonged to Uganda, but the capital, as long as it was nameless, had no such allegiances. Like me, it belonged to no one, and anyone could claim it.
In Isaac’s side of the narrative, the Pan-African dream has “turned rotten,” and the capital has been flooded with “every aspiring militant, radical, and would-be revolutionary in Eastern and Central Africa.” Amin has risen out of this ideological and political chaos. The opportunistic Isaac  puts himself at the center of a growing resistance movement, which Isaac will follow—less out of shared political beliefs than willingness to be swept up by other people’s passions. This detachment is another leitmotif of the novel, which compounds the problem of vagueness.
Isaac comes and goes and holds no place close. He explains that his father used to call him Bird because “nothing made me happier than looking down.” He is outside most of the action of the novel—even when he is a participant. Isaac describes what he sees with a cool remove that seems to stand in opposition to the emotional connections he professes to feel for both Isaac  and Helen. Does he love them for themselves, or simply appreciate that they love him and are present when he wants love? Neither pair comes across as particularly simpático.
Isaac’s own description of the basis for his bond with Isaac  reinforces the novel’s sense of opportunism: “[We] were both liars and frauds, poorly equipped to play the roles we had chosen.” This makes them perfect embodiments of the young men pouring into Kampala for myriad reasons: wealth, power, connections, and above all else—politics. At the end of the first chapter, Isaac  tells Isaac, “Politics. That’s all we have here.”
Unlike our narrator, Isaac  is no outsider; he keenly understands the world—at least the world they find in the Capital. Isaac  has come to the university to begin a revolution, and he does just that. His modus operandi is to pick out and provoke rich students by calling them all Alex, first behind their backs and eventually to their faces—another variant on the name-game. They insult him back, and he responds by hurling stones. He gets beat up, disappears, and reappears with no explanation. He holds rallies and incites political upheaval against the president’s oppressive government. He builds a following. The beatings have benefits—for him. They make him a symbol, to which other students flock. At one point, when a melee erupts, Isaac observes that Isaac  has “no intention of leading any of them to safety.”
Isaac ’s power grows among the students, and when the political situation erupts into violent protests and everyone (Isaac included) runs for cover, Isaac  stands at the center of it all, refusing to flinch. Before long, Isaac  is wearing the golden epaulets of an officer; epaulets earned at the end of a gun. Isaac follows Isaac  physically, not ideologically. Given Isaac’s lack of engagement, one doubts he would’ve found his way into the fray at all if he had met a different kind of first friend. By the time they part ways, Isaac  is riding the rising wave of revolution, and Isaac will leave with nothing.
After Isaac leaves Isaac , he comes upon “the idyllic corner of the world I had been hoping to find,” walking between two villages. He dismisses this flash of contentment: “if I stayed long enough I’d find all the petty complaints and frustrations of life here just as easily as I had found them in the capital and in my own childhood home.”
Eventually Isaac leaves Uganda, the revolution, and Isaac  behind. He arrives in the Midwest, and Helen, his social worker, claims him for her own reasons: loneliness, fear of turning into her mother, and some deep and conflicted emotions about being involved in an interracial relationship.
Again, Isaac is swept up in someone else’s needs and desires. Helen’s narrative picks up after the events in Uganda, but the similarities are striking. Isaac arrives in a new place, gets involved with the first person he meets, and quickly becomes entangled in her agenda. In both narratives Isaac leaves. And both times, neither partner is happy, but both agree he must go.
Helen and Isaac fill a void in each other’s lonely lives, which serves to balance the book, but the relationship often feels implausible. Isaac’s section has the urgency and tumult of war. The sections in Laurel hinge on Helen’s fears—largely domestic and less engaging, and Isaac is even harder to read from Helen’s point of view. In his own sections, at least we are privy to his thoughts. Without them, he is flat on the page.
Early in the book, Helen brings Isaac to a diner where she ate with her father growing up, without telling him that their lunch date was a carefully orchestrated attempt to confront racism in her town. Helen calls the diner and its patrons “targets,” and chooses it because she can’t remember anyone except whites eating there. She brings him when she “knew the restaurant would be crowded.” Isaac suggests meeting her there, but Helen insists on picking him up to ensure that the two of them walk in together, then she hides behind her menu, and waits for people to notice “how remarkable we were.”
Once they sit down, people do indeed notice. The other patrons stare. The mood is quiet, but clear. Clear enough that Isaac asks why they’re there. “No particular reason,” Helen says, waiting for the real shit to hit the fan. Which, of course, it does. They order lunch from a generically described waitress, who has “a kind round face and wore her dark-brown hair in a bun.” She returns to ask if the couple would like their lunch to go. Isaac says, “I’m going to eat my lunch.” Isaac’s lunch arrives on a paper plate with plastic utensils. The message is quiet, but clear: He is not welcome there. Helen’s lunch arrives on ordinary dishes.
As a narrator, Helen continually annoys and confounds. She thinks they are fighting racism, but what she’s really doing—performing “normal” tasks with her black lover for the town to see—is confirming to herself, more than anybody else that she’s not a racist. She carries a note to self with her to lunch that reads: “We have every right to be here.” Helen’s constant emphasis on “we” shows her blindness. She isn’t aware or empathetic enough to appreciate how much these stares and insults will hurt Isaac. Helen’s lunch arrives normally, after all.
It is worth mentioning that this scene comes early on in the novel, and though Mengestu has given us clues to era, they are, in keeping with the book’s style, vague and easy to miss. As a result, the couple’s reception at the diner comes as a surprise, not for its drama, but because it seems improbable.
Isaac decides that they’ll stay and finish their lunch. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” he asks. He eats slowly, refusing to be rushed. He watches Helen, and she observes, “I knew there was something slightly cruel lurking in his gaze.” Isaac tries to force Helen to face herself, but she is incapable, and sees Isaac’s behavior as cruel, but not her own.
As a character, Helen is selfish, cowardly, manipulative, and dishonest. Why give her such an important role? To imply that America in the 1970s was no better for a black man than Idi Amin’s Uganda? Is that really a meaningful comparison?
As one reads All Our Names, the same questions emerge again and again: Why did Mengestu make this choice, or create such a character? And answering them can become a tedious guessing game. Mengestu’s intention to make characters and places function as symbols makes them weak as individuals; and their lack of concreteness makes them poor conduits for the story. After all, it is distinction that makes people, places, and events remarkable.
For example, the novel speaks in two voices—an African man and an American woman, but both sound the same, begging the question, why have two narrators at all? Take these passages:
A) I picked his clothes up from the floor. I folded his pants and shirts, just as my mother had done for my father and for me—a seemingly insignificant gesture that was still one of the things I missed most about living so far away from home. It had something to do with knowing that even in your sleep you were watched over, and that each morning, no matter what mistakes you might have made, you had the right to begin again. I laid Isaac’s clothes next to his bed, which was how my mother had always done it; before leaving, I swept my hands over his shirt and pants to shake off the dirt and smooth out the wrinkles as best I could.
B) I took my time putting the keys in the ignition. If Isaac was watching me, I wanted him to see me calmly drive away, and so I did my best to imitate a woman of composure. I fastened my seat belt, I adjusted the mirrors, and I was about to turn the key when the front door of Isaac’s building opened. He came out slowly, or at least he appeared to. I noticed he wasn’t wearing a coat. He tucked his hands in the pockets, and his shoulders hunched together. I remembered that this was his first glimpse of winter, and that he had worried almost since the day he arrived how he would handle the cold.
The first passage is the end of one of Isaac’s chapters, and the second begins the subsequent Helen chapter. The cadence, sentence structure, and tone are the same, as are the character’s names, though each narrator refers to a different Isaac. The “confusion-of-the-two-Isaacs” aside, none of the novel’s characters have specific voices–only specific actions which often feel extreme, even unbelievable. Maybe they’re unbelievable because Mengestu hasn’t created a believable world for them; flat, repetitive language, and generic modifiers crowd the middle of the novel. For example:
Isaac made a dramatic return to campus on a Monday afternoon. He looked heroic as he walked through the front gates with dark bruises beneath both eyes, a gash across his pointed chin, and a patch of scabs across the right side of his face. He limped gracefully but with force, as if trying to show the damage wasn’t permanent.
What is a dramatic return? A heroic look? A graceful limp? The point is not to attack modifiers, but the descriptive easy-out, the lack of texture. The novel feels quickly written in places. Rarely does the language stir or excite, as in these passages: “I’m letting you go, slowly, in pieces, so it won’t break me,” Helen says at one point. Elsewhere, Isaac says, “[T]hose birds were harmless, but their elongated, pointed beaks suggested nature or time had denuded them; their ugly bald heads made them look like masters of prey.”
Mengestu has received many prestigious awards. He is a MacArthur Foundation fellow, one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. All Our Names came out to high praise, with very little discussion of its craft-and-story problems. A writer of Mr. Mengestu’s stature has the whole world listening. That he didn’t have more to tell us—to thunder, to whisper in our ears— is disappointing.
Nicole Treska lives in New York City, where she teaches writing and media studies for the City University of New York. She has been published in The Coffin Factory and Moonshot Magazine, and was a recipient of the Jerome Foundation 2012 grant for Travel and Study in Fiction.