Dinaw Mengestu’s third novel skillfully blends two disparate narratives—the account of an African revolution and the story of a survivor’s new life in America—to create a moving portrait of the dilemma of identity.
All Our Names is set in the 1970s, in the early days of Idi Amin’s repressive reign in Uganda. An unnamed narrator, a young man who dreams of becoming a writer, crosses the border from his native Ethiopia and meets Isaac, his contemporary from the slums of Kampala. The two “became friends the way two stray dogs find themselves linked by treading the same path every day in search of food and companionship.” They spend their days at the capital’s university campus and watch as what begin as almost playful protests, chief among them what the narrator calls their “paper revolution,” spark brutal retaliation from government thugs. Soon, the idealism of the uprising curdles into violence, with Isaac assuming a prominent role in the anti-government force.
Mengestu exposes our very human inability to truly know even those closest to us.
In chapters that alternate with that account, Helen, a social worker in a small Midwestern college town, provides the novel’s other narrative voice. The man she knows as Isaac has escaped from the African turmoil, bearing scars both physical and psychic. Helen quickly is transformed from his “chaperone into Middle America” into his lover, but the bigotry of the times compels them to conceal their interracial relationship. Despite their intimacy, Helen is haunted by her inability to penetrate to the core of Isaac’s being.
That unease is only one manifestation of the conflicting impulses that seem to define these characters. How is Isaac transformed from prankster to hardened revolutionary, someone “trying to end the nightmare this nation has become”? The narrator, who “came for the writers and stayed for the war” finds “the difference wasn’t as great as I would have thought,” and yet he vacillates between detachment and active, if reluctant, participation in the revolt. Helen, who still lives with her mother at age 30, struggles to resolve the tension between her small-town roots and the exoticism of her affair with a man from an alien culture whose past is veiled from her. In each instance, Mengestu’s unadorned prose hints at, rather than discloses, the secrets each of his characters harbors. But it’s in their mystery that he exposes a persistent fact of our existence—our inability to truly know even those closest to us.