The World and What it Isn’t: Dinaw Mengestu’s “All Our Names.”

“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

–V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River

matadi

I’m unsettled by the extent to which Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names (2014) seems to have absorbed V.S. Naipaul’s vision of Africa, and the brutal hopelessness of revolution. Mengestu is fond of Naipaul; he recently called A Bend in the River (1979) “a harsh and surprisingly prescient account of the Congo’s dissolution,” and wrote that “[a]s the country slowly fractures, so do the lives of the characters, making it one of the most intimate portraits of revolution—in the broadest sense of that word—in literature.”

If I may make so bold, I suspect it was his own novel he was thinking of, but put that aside for a moment: V. S. Naipaul is a fine writer and a bigot, both were true of A Bend in the River, and it’s a problem for me that All Our Names aspires to tell such a similar story, about revolution gone wrong. All Our Names is a truly lovely novel, but I can’t really enjoy it; to be blunt, it stinks of Naipaulian ideology. I am torn between a sound that’s halfway between a snort and nothing, as was Ifemelu in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, when a white friend starts waxing eloquent about Naipaul:

naipaul

There are times when Adichie’s characters lean towards caricature, in this novel—something you would never accuse a character in a Mengestu novel of—but sometimes people really are caricatures. Naipaul certainly is, quite willingly. Michiko Kakutani—who wrote a glowing review of Mengestu’s novel in the NYT—also surveyed Naipaul’s corpus-to-date in 1980, and she says the sorts of things we’ve either learned to say (or forgotten to say) about Naipaul, who is always willing to play the part ascribed to him by destiny, the part of reactionary crank:

“In V. S. Naipaul’s stories, there is always an area of darkness just beyond the edge of town; colonists arrive, empires rise and collapse, and a new, not-so-brave world emerges, but always the bush remains, waiting to cover over whatever remains. It is a dark vision, to be sure, and it is a vision shaped by the author’s own familiarity with the margins of society. “It came from living in the bush,” he says. “It came from a fear of being swallowed up by the bush, a fear of the people of the bush, and it’s a fear I haven’t altogether lost. They are the enemies of the civilization which I cherish.”

Naipaul’s Africa is the heart of darkness in which savage Africans and atavistic white men float downstream, damned together; all is vanity, always the bush awaits, and the best you can hope to do is run away and hide your head beneath the covers.

Is this Mengestu’s vision of Africa?

It isn’t, not quite, but it’s too close for comfort, much to close for me; All Our Names is a novel, I suspect, whose vision of the continent would find Sir Vidia to be a congenial reader. It has not found a congenial reader in me.

I wanted to like this book. Mengestu’s first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007), was a revelation. Rob Nixon called “a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel” and this is the right way to phrase it: Mengestu showed with sensitivity and style that there didn’t need to be any friction between those categories. Mengestu wasn’t quite the first to do this—and many more novelists have, since then, shorted the circuits that keep “America” and “Africa” in separate neighborhoods—but in 2007, Open City, Americanah, Ghana Must Go, Edible Bones, We Need New Names, Foreign Gods, Inc… none of these novels were yet published.

But I absolutely adore Mengestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air. Its quiet humanism is not only brave and unflinching, but—it seems to me—totally committed to understanding the forms through which we imagine our worlds into existence, the lies we live because we have nothing other than fictions to sustain us. The protagonist, Jonah, is an American-born child of Ethiopian immigrants, and the novel follows the thread of his parents’ relationship to America and to each other, as he retraces a road trip they took across the Midwest before he was born (an act of retracing that Mengestu himself once took). The story he reconstructs is not true, strictly speaking; as becomes increasingly obvious over the course of the novel, its truths are reflections of his own life, his own needs and fears. Yet that story comes to structure his life all the more firmly, and his sense of himself, and that’s the point: what does it matter if the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are “true”? We are who we narrate ourselves to be, or perhaps the other way around: we have no choice but to narrate ourselves as we are. “Truth” is a fragile and unreliable anchor to tie ourselves to; what is “reality” but what we have imagined ourselves into existence to be?

Alongside the disorientation of admitting “identity” to be the prison in which we lock our imaginations, the consequence of How to Read the Air’s skepticism is the possibility of imagining new futures into existence, new selves, and new possibilities. Who we are is not a given; who we are is what we can imagine ourselves into becoming. I am charmed, compelled, and even inspired by that novel, all the more so because Mengestu never falls into the trap of pretending this is as easy to do as deciding to. To be skeptical of yourself can be liberating, but refusing the easy answers that makes life easier is, after all, also very hard, and the book’s quiet empathy for the hardships of our common, human struggle is where I find his gentle humanism most powerful.

How to Read the Air is a very American novel; it’s built around a Great American Road Trip, and the knowing cynicism of that trope’s deployment can’t weaken the depth and power of the mythology. If anything, the novel’s subtle exploration of the ways we lie to ourselves testifies to the truth’s diminishing power to disillusion: if we are our illusions, what’s the point of puncturing them?

All Our Names is the third in what Mengestu has called a trilogy, but while there are lines of continuity, this novel also marks a break from the previous novels in some important ways. It is his first novel which makes real claims on Africa, rather than simply describing Africans in America. Mengestu was born in Ethiopia, but he grew up in the United States—from the age of two—and his first two novels reflect that setting, that knowledge. Mengestu knows America. This is not to say that his characters aren’t Africans, of course—I don’t think we need to choose—but his first two novels are the sort of thing that gets called “immigrant novel” (though it’s a term Mengestu dislikes), for a simple reason: they are about immigrants in the United States.

In All Our Names, Mengestu tells two linked stories—one set in Uganda in the early 1970’s, and one set in the Midwest, about a year later—but the word “immigrant” is the wrong word for both, I think. The first is the story of an Ethiopian in Uganda, though he is not really marked as such in the narration; the second is the story of a white American woman, Helen, in the Midwest. Although she cares for and falls in love with the man she knows as “Isaac”—a temporary refugee from Uganda—she doesn’t really know him, and because the novel is written from her perspective, neither do we. These are, in other words, two stories outside the immigrant narrative, and framing it: the story of the would-be-welcomer and the story of the immigrant-to-be. The land that welcomes him and the land that dispatches him to it.

As Mengestu openly acknowledges, these are “imagined versions” of both places, liberally reconstructed according to the needs of the novel that he wanted to write. Here is where he starts to lose me: if How to Read the Air brought out the truth of fiction—the devastating and inescapable reality of the narratives in which we are made—All Our Names does something like the reverse, behaving as though “reality” is simply a fiction, to be rewritten as needed. It pretends that you can say something true, while saying something you know to be false.

Perhaps making this distinction only clarifies the extent to which “truth” and “fiction” are not stable categories to make this distinction; as I read back over what I just wrote, I’m not sure I’ve even convinced myself. But it’s in Dinaw Mengestu’s disinclination to strict historical accuracy that we need to talk about V. S. Naipaul, and not the “good” Naipaul whose deep and painful identification with characters like Mr. Biswas—however self-loathing it may also be—at least partially prevented him from fully dehumanizing them. I’m talking about the racist Naipaul, who looked at Africa and saw a very particular story about human weakness and imperfection, for whom “Africa” became the great demonstration that we are all, at our core, monstrously dark and bestial. Naipaul’s Africa is a doomed continent, an Africa whose darkness didn’t begin when Europe grabbed what it could get for the sake of what was to be got; his Africa is Conrad’s, an Africa which has always been what it is, and always will be.

In both his novels and travel-journalism, Naipaul told this single story many times, a story of postcolonial despair, in which the hope and idealism of independence were met with frustration as revolution becomes repression and as freedom dreams become nightmarish violence. It is, essentially, the reactionary narrative used to dismiss utopian revolutionary movement as such: as with the French and Soviet revolutions—for which the names “Robespierre” and “Stalin” serve to remind us that revolutionary violence always turns back on the revolutionary masses—names like “Idi Amin” and “Mobutu Sese Seko” serve to demonstrate that decolonization was a mirage and a violent fraud.

Naipaul’s open and explicit racism towards Africans makes him relatively easy to dismiss, if you are so inclined (and I generally am). Some of his works are wonderful, but much of it is reactionary garbage, and it’s easy to say so. He makes it easy; he seems to want you to say it.

It is harder to dismiss Mengestu, but he tells the same basic story of postcolonial Africa, and it bothers me the way V.S. Naipaul bothers me. It is much harder to dismiss Mengestu, because there is no trace of Naipaulian misanthropy in his writing; where Naipaul’s racism makes “Africa” into an expression of his deep, dark hatred for humanity, Mengestu’s characters are flaws with human beings wrapped around them, traumatic wounds and damage expressed through dreams, hope, and love. You could call him a gentle and empathic Naipaul, I suppose, if such a thing weren’t a contradiction in terms: he is nothing like the Naipaul whose lack of gentleness and empathy is his defining characteristic. Mengestu is not a racist, something it seems both necessary and ridiculous to say.

Yet this is not a novel that does justice to postcolonial Africa, something the early novels never failed to do because they never tried. His first two novels were not about Africa. In part, they were about “Africa,” a story no less real for being a fiction: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was about the diasporic fictions of continuity, community, and connection that melts emigrants from dozens of different and distinct countries into a single sense of group identification; How to Read the Air was about the “Africa” formed by human rights discourse and geopolitics, an “Africa” which becomes what it needs to be for stateless pilgrims in search of a better life, or even just a life, willing to say and be whatever they need to survive. But even to describe those novels in this way is to tell a shortened story about them; they are about many more things than “Africa,” and this is what made them work. “Africa” was a piece of a larger and more complex story, a human story which is never reducible to it, or simplified by it. A story about human beings, not about Africa, because only the former is real. The latter is just a story.

In All Our Names, however, Mengestu has told a story about Africa, and seems to think Africa is real. As he admitted in an interview, his relationship to history was essentially instrumental; “I didn’t intend a real depiction of that historical moment,” he said, “but my story is very much informed by it.” Which is another way of saying that while he employed the narratives and historical ephemera that he found useful for the story he wanted to tell, he didn’t feel bound by the necessity to tell a whole story, or a complete one. Here, again, he is more like Naipaul than it is a compliment to observe: Naipaul wrote many an “Africa” that resembled aspects of a dream-worked version of the dark continent that he saw in his nightmares, and never let other sides of the story diminish his ability to assert the essential, fundamental truth of his fantasies. Here, again, I compare Mengestu to Naipaul to damn and then to redeem him: Naipaul thought he was writing about Africa as it truly was, and believed he had done it. Mengestu seems to have little of that kind of egotistical hubris.

And yet. The problem with Naipaul’s Africa was not simply his occasional racist pronouncements, but also his big disavowal: he never believed colonialism or the West had all that much to do with the violent monstrosities he saw emerging from “The Bush,” not really; he looked at the Zaire of Mobutu Sese-Seko, and he saw a nonsense kingdom with a nonsense name, first and foremost, and he used the word “Africa” to explain what he saw as its nihilistic emptiness. Sometimes he could admit that King Leopold and the Belgians bore some of the responsibility for the disaster that Zaire had become; just as Conrad was willing to criticize other colonial powers—while maintaining the possibility that Britain was doing it right—Naipaul was also willing to admit that the Belgian Congo had been Europe at its worst. But when he describes Zaire in the 1970’s, history is manifested in the shabby ruins of the Belgian inheritance that its African re-possessors are slowly destroying; occasional admissions that Mobuto was continuing in the pattern set for him by the Belgian example are counterbalanced by set-piece after set-piece dramatizing how the bush is growing over the Belgian past. Here, as elsewhere, Naipaul’s essential pessimism about humanity gets reflected in the figure of the African bush growing over the Ozymandiasesque remnants of past civilizations, Arab then Belgian; say what you will about robbery with violence, dude, at least aggravated murder on a great scale built some statues and trains and paved roads.

Mobutu, by contrast, is an African king, and as such, he serves as an expression of the African void. From A Bend in the River:

bush

In All Our Names, Mengestu’s Joseph Mabira is not a nihilistic monstrosity, and he gets sketched with a certain amount of arresting sympathy, as does the character given the name “Isaac” by his parents (on whose passport the main protagonist eventually travels to the United States). These are not caricatures. But both of them express an essential void, the absence at the heart of “revolution”: as revolutionary idealism and freedom dreams drain away, it seems, power becomes a self-reinforcing structure, with reference to nothing other than the need to dominate. This is what the novel shows us, something Naipaul would write about differently, but which he would recognize in his wearying, knowing cynicism. The world is what it is; as with Kurtz, utopian dreams inevitably become violence.

In an interview on the Dianne Rehm show, for example, Mengestu described the

“absurdity that happens when power becomes so desperate to maintain itself that it no longer is concerned with its actual reality to the people who have to live under it. They just want to assert their authority in whatever meaningless ways they can.”

It’s in this context that the “paper revolution” of the early novel begins, an exercise in anti-revolutionary satire in which our two main male characters make fun of the senselessness of governmental authority on campus, power that seems to exist merely for the purpose of being power. But they don’t only satirize the emptiness of the government itself (who is Idi Amin Dada, kind of, but reduced to a barely-present background). The two characters mainly spend their time making fun of the cadres of would-be revolutionaries on campus, none of whom are taken seriously or deserve to be, precisely because they take the “paper revolution” seriously, because they mistake Isaac for a revolutionary. “Back then,” as the protagonist observes, “all the boys our age wanted to be revolutionaries”:

“On campus and in the poor quarters…there were dozens of Lumumbas, Marleys, Malcolms, Cesaires, Kenyattas, Senghors, and Selassies, boys who woke up every morning and donned the black hats and olive-green costumes of their heroes.”

Again, there is something Conradian about this image; an essential vacuum given shape by self-deception of costumes. These boys who play at revolution are trifling nothings, easily misled and manipulated, because of their credulity towards the idea of revolution; Isaac becomes their master because he understands that, and can use his cynicism as power. The cynical will inherit the revolution; those who believe in it will become its tool, and this is the insight that Isaac teaches, the difference between men and mere boys.

Yet these “boys” are, if they are the narrator’s age, around 25, and the more I think about that, the more this bothers me. Moreover, the early 1970’s might seem like a long time ago, a “back then” in which a 25-year old might seem comparatively young, a mere boy, if we look back at it from four decades later. But a 25-year old is only a “boy” to someone much older, and the first person protagonist of that section of the novel only tells the story up to around age 26 or 27; he leaves for the United States not long after arriving on campus, and his visa for the US does not allow him to stay for more than a year. In other words, the narrative voice of the novel has a cynical distance from those “boys” playing at revolutionaries, a voice that is wrong for any of the characters that we see on the page, none of whom would regard themselves that way. I don’t know if it’s Mengestu, but it feels too close to Naipaul for my comfort. That voice lets us know, for example—almost before he’s even introduced these campus revolutionaries—that they are destined for corrupt self-interest, these “boys”:

“Everything back then was supposed to be ours. The city, this country, Africa—they were there for the taking, and, at least in that regard, our approach to the future was no different from that of the Englishmen who preceded us. Many of the young boys who were students at the university would later prove the point as they stuffed themselves with their country’s wealth.”

Again, this cannot be the way Isaac would tell the story, whether then or even a year later, in the Midwest; this is the voice of decades of disillusionment and despair speaking, a voice with tremendous distance from the “boys” in question (not least because of what they would do “later,” a later that cannot have already occurred).

Who is narrating this novel?

An easy answer is: ideology. It may not be the only or the best answer, but it’s because Mengestu is not worried about historical accuracy that he tells a very ideological story about Uganda in the 1970’s, a fantasy that passes for real to people who want to believe it. But there’s also a pattern to the kinds of historical details he overlooks and changes: postcolonial Africa is the revolution gone sour, the violence of liberation turned against the liberated. And while the novel has a certain sympathy for monsters like Joseph Mabira and the first Isaac—sociopathic killers, as it will turn out, but well-rounded and complex—the novel has nothing but patronizing contempt for the Makerere students who dream of African socialism and world revolution. They are as flat as a Che Guevara poster.

The asymmetry of that comparison is ideological. Mengestu works to give monstrous African warlords complexity and depth, and calls upon his own personal experience as a journalist (in East Africa, as it happens) to do so, which gives them the weight of reportage. Mengestu brushed against Joseph Kony a few years ago, and used conversations with and impressions of other contemporary African warlords to inform his sense of the revolutionaries in his novel. But in doing so, he begs the question that Joseph Mabira and Joseph Kony have more in common than just their first name. In fact, he strongly suggests the connection. After all, how many American readers of this novel will assume that “Joseph” is, in fact, Joseph Kony? More than a few, I imagine.

That elision is Naipaulian; indeed, there is more than a little resemblance to the way another Joseph— Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, who would rename himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga—exemplifies the enduring, eternal truth of the African King for Naipaul. History is less important than that which endures: the violence that no revolution can overcome.

Mengestu would not make those claims, I suspect, and he does not. But I’m struck how close he comes in a statement like this one, in an interview with NPR, where he observes that violence is essentially random:

“One of the things I have found working as journalist — and specifically covering conflicts and trying to meet men who, at some point in time, are or were in the process of becoming their own sort of revolutionary-like figures — I often found that there was a total randomness to it, a randomness not only to how they came into power, but to their causes and their sort of logic of why they began the violence. You know, violence kind of unfolded without a logical necessity behind it. You know, there was an expression of frustration and I think when you don’t have any other means to express that frustration, violence quickly becomes the form.”

Violence comes from beneath, in other words, and it does not follow a pattern. It just happens. Like power, it is its own explanation, absurd but real. Violence just is.

This is not what student radicals in the 1970’s tended to believe, and they were right. They tended to see a global capitalist conspiracy using counter-revolutionary violence to maintain structures of economic exploitation in Africa. This is what Patrice Lumumba believed, for example, and that’s why the CIA and Belgium conspired to have him killed, eventually replacing him with Mobutu, the better to maintain structures of economic exploitation in Africa. This is wild conspiracy talk, and it’s also well documented: Lumumba’s revolution was quashed from without, not corrupted from within. This is why Naipaul can’t talk about Lumumba, why the name is so absent from his writing about Zaire; there was nothing random about Mobutu’s rise to power, nor was it an expression of a deep African need for a patriarchal king-god, as Naipaul insisted. Lumumba was popular, and that was precisely why the violence that brought Mobutu to power was deemed necessary by a very literal, very real global conspiracy to “roll-back” communism in Africa. This didn’t happen in the base of the African psyche; it happened in conversations between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Allen Dulles.

The same thing is roughly true of Idi Amin Dada, albeit in important and different ways: when Uganda’s President Milton Obote was moving towards the kind of socialist nationalization that the more leftist (albeit still non-aligned) nations like Tanzania had favored, a literal conspiracy between the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad worked to put Amin in power, in his place. One needn’t idealize Obote to take note of this fact, nor should we oversimplify what happened; there were many different things going on at this time, and the most paranoid story that is sometimes told—in which the CIA is an all-powerful puppet master—is a simplification. Western interference was only one element of that larger story; Africa has its fascisms and Kleptocratic monsters, just as the West does.

But there was nothing random about such violence; it was an expression of the West’s frustration and fear of African socialism, the logical necessity the West saw for world capitalist integration, and the steps that were taken to make it so (long after colonialism was supposed to have ended). And with only a few tantalizing exceptions—traces of what he didn’t write—Mengestu’s account of the 1970’s is strangely bizarrely oblivious to the Cold War as the structuring context in which it occurred. As he tells the story here, for example—at a reading at one of my favorite bookstores in the imperial capital, a few days ago—you would think the revolution died of natural causes:

“This novel began with this idea that there was this great moment of hope and optimism in Africa following the end of the colonial era, and I wanted very much to write out of that. And once I began to think about it, I began to realize that there are a lot of similarities here, so, 1962 you have the independence of Uganda, 1963 you have the Kenyan independence. 1963 you also have the march on Washington, here in Washington DC, and you have the civil rights movement gaining its ground, and both movements reflect a desire for liberties that have been denied and that might finally be achieved. At the same time you have those moments, you also have the sort of demise that follows, the frustration and disappointment that accompanies those narratives. So right afterwards, 1968, you have the death of MLK and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. You also have the rise of totalitarian states and tyrants in Africa.”

This is a story that Naipaul would tell in a very ugly way; he would describe how Africans were simply not ready to possess Africa, and were destined to make a mess of it. Mengestu displaces that ugliness onto the masses of corrupt-to-be, would-be revolutionary fools, whose collective voice Isaac appropriates:

“The city, this country, Africa—they were there for the taking, and, at least in that regard, our approach to the future was no different from that of the Englishmen who preceded us.”

There is a truth in that sentence, which is what makes it pernicious: Idi Amin was a lot like the Englishmen who preceded him. But it was because Idi Amin had spent two decades as part of the British colonial military: he was one of the highest ranking African officers in the Kings African Rifles, and he personally fought against African revolutionaries in Kenya, during the Mau Mau revolt. He was not a revolutionary who became reactionary; he was always reactionary, and that’s why the West saw him as a safe choice for puppet dictator (though he would, as is often the case, turn out not to be), as the person who could keep order and keep the revolutionaries in line.

This distinction is important, which is perhaps why All Our Names can’t distinguish between the “Lumumbas, Marleys, Malcolms, Cesaires, Kenyattas, Senghors, and Selassies” that the paper-revolutionaries aspire to be. They are all a singular, fractious revolutionary multitude, the idealism of a revolution gone sour. But it went sour, I will insist, because people like Lumumba and Malcolm ended up dead, while people like Kenyatta, Senghor, and Selassie were never revolutionaries at all. You cannot blame the revolution for the fact that the revolution never happened.

Why it didn’t happen is complicated, of course, and one complication is that in one place, it did happen, sort of: the Ethiopia that Mengestu’s family fled from, in the 1970’s. But Ethiopia is literally the exception that proves the rule, the only sovereign state on the continent that existed in its present form before colonialism, and for which imperial rule (the Italian occupation from 1936-41) was a relatively brief interlude, simply an episode in a much longer history. In many ways, Ethiopia had a Marxist-Leninist revolution—in 1974—precisely because it was never colonized. In Kenya or Uganda, nationalist movements were directed against the colonizers, which meant they tended towards fascism, not communism; neither Obote nor Kenyatta were ever very Marxist, and only the paranoid or cynical would pretend otherwise. And if you want to argue—as conservatives and liberals generally do—that revolutions inevitably turn violent, then post-revolutionary Ethiopia could be up there with Cuba as a kind of exemplary case. But you simply can’t say that about Kenya or Uganda, or most of postcolonial Africa; the terms don’t fit.

For the United States, rolling back communism in Africa meant killing or sidelining radicals while supporting and turning a blind eye to the bourgeois elite classes that were primarily interested in enriching themselves. In some cases, that meant directly engineering coups to put “strong men” into power. In other cases, it meant supporting or recognizing authoritarians with abysmal human rights records, as long as they were sufficiently anti-communist. But in all cases, the United States was, in Africa, on the wrong side of history. And the student revolutionaries that Idi Amin crushed—who Mengestu portrays as posturing elitists in training—were the ones demanding democracy.

This is not, to put it mildly, the story that Dinaw Mengestu chooses to tell about the United States and Africa in the 1970’s. Instead, All Our Names is fashioned from a variety of different stories, but in being true to none of them, takes refuge in fantasy. The specter of Joseph Kony haunts the story he tells about Uganda, and though Kony only got his start in the 1980’s, elements of that later era of banditry are read back into the 1970’s, with a continuity between them strongly implied (or left in the text to be inferred). But Kony has more in common with Idi Amin Dada than he does with campus radicals, and to blur the distinction is to make a hash of history, in precisely the ways that Mengestu has criticized elsewhere.

Meanwhile, “Barack Obama” looms over the story that Mengestu tells about an interracial romance between a visiting African student and a Midwestern social worker.

As Michiko Kakutani put it in the NYT, “The reader cannot help being reminded that, in real life, Barack Obama’s Kansan mother and Kenyan father married in 1961, a decade before this novel is set, though they met not in a small Midwestern town, but in the more multiracial Hawaii.”
It’s very little like the actual story of Anne Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr., of course—just as Mengestu’s Makerere University doesn’t much resemble the actual one in Kampala—but that’s exactly the point: it has the privilege of feeling like history without the responsibilities of remaining true to it. As with Joseph Mabira and Joseph Kony, it’s too similar not to make the connection. But because it’s different, it becomes a different story, literally changing the story it’s referencing. Precisely because Mengestu’s story is not really about Uganda, he can imagine “Uganda” as he would like it to be, picking and choosing, and changing historical details where he wants. But at the same time, because it clearly is about Uganda—and about Barack Obama—the novel tells a story about postcolonial Africa that is wish-fulfillment and fantasy: reading this book would lead you to imagine that Uganda/Africa became independent through revolutionary violence and that these revolutionaries became dictators in the aftermath. It would not lead you to suspect that independence movements were overwhelmingly non-violent in Africa, or that counter-revolutionary violence was fomented on countries like Uganda from the outside, that radicals and revolutionaries were mostly the ones being jailed and executed, not the ones doing the executing.

Perhaps the real problem, for me, is that the novel has a happy ending, that a fantasized wish-fulfillment love story solves all the problems that the novel has otherwise acknowledged. This is where we feel “Obama” most heavily, the substanceless specter of hope and change, which solves problems by pretending they don’t exist. And though Mengestu does not argue that Chinua Achebe is “quaint” and that Naipaul gives us a realistic picture of Africa, I am struck by his ambition to reverse and invert Chinua Achebe’s narrative; in the reading at Politics and Prose that I quoted from above, Mengestu framed his book in this way:

“Everyone knows the great Chinua Achebe novel, Things Fall Apart. [All Our Names] is almost the opposite of that, it’s things come together, when they’re not supposed to. So in some ways, the character in this novel—or the first narrator, Isaac—he comes to America having lost his home. But what I was interested in as much as I was interested in that loss of a country, and the sort of political violence that surrounds it, was how his narrative begins to mirror and reflect on a very uniquely American narrative. We oftentimes tend to think of the histories of nations as radically distinct from each other—especially when they occur in places that we consider far away—so that narratives of lives in Asia and Africa can seem like they exist in an entirely different sphere than the lives here in America. But it turns out when you actually bring these stories together onto a very intimate personal frame, you can begin to see how they reflect one another, how they begin to carry echoes across generations and across time periods.”

The great insight of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not that different stories reflected each other, but that they contested each other, that they were built on and necessitated the erasure of the other. Achebe didn’t testify to the essential similarity of human culture; though he did draw parallels between African and English authoritarian patriarchs, he was primarily interested in the way Okonkwo’s Africa had to be erased and forgotten for the colonial narrative to come true, and how that is pretty much what happened. This was the tragedy of his novel, the tragedy of history. Mengestu has made history a romance, a play that you can call a “comedy” because it ends with a wedding, instead of a funeral. Racism and colonialism, solved by the love between an African “student,” a mid-Western social worker, and a baby who will grow up, presumably, in Chicago.