Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I was very pleased with the announcement just before Christmas that the winner of The Guardian First Book Award 2007 is Dinaw Mengestu for CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION (in America the title is THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT HEAVEN BEARS). It is a beautifully written book, and especially as a first novel, is worth reading. Aida Edemariam interviewed Mengestu, regarding writing the book:
He had already written most of a novel about "farmers in the Midwest, and a flood. It was very cerebral, full of memories without any characters ... it was terrible", when, one day, he was walking down 18th Street in Washington and "I saw this Ethiopian standing behind the counter of a very small shop. It was late at night and there was nobody in the store, and I went home and wrote, 'Almost nobody comes into this store any more'. And that's really where the story began." Sepha Stephanos, the character at the centre of Children of the Revolution, left Ethiopia at 16, 17 years ago; he has worked as a porter, now owns a small, failing shop, has never quite arrived in this new country, feels increasingly lost. (Full article in The Guardian here.)
I heard Mengestu speaking at the Hay Festival 2007, and one point he made in particular stuck with me, especially as it relates really well to the novel. He stressed the importance of needing to connect with other people. CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION is a terribly sad and lonely story. Sepha Stephanos runs a tiny shop just off Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. He is isolated in the way that so many immigrants are. With no immediate family living with him, his developing friendship with the neighbour Judith, and her small daughter Naomi takes on increasing significance.
''I did not come to America to find a better life...I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back. My goal since then has always been a simple one: to persist unnoticed through the days, to do no more harm.''
Sepha worked his first job on arrival in the US as a valet at the Capitol Hotel, where he made friends with the Congolese Joseph (now working as a waiter) and Kenyan Kenneth (now an engineer). They are a constant backdrop to Sepha's story, as foils to his own. How each of them is learning to cope with immigrant life fills out the rougher edges of the plot, but both are achingly isolated, each in his own way.

There has been some discussion over the difference in titles (a really interesting example is over on dovegreyreader's blog, do take a look). Personally, I find the UK title the most appropriate in terms of the subject matter of the book. The African characters have all fled difficult situations and, while trying to make a new way, are still haunted by what has gone before, isolating them in their new lives. Mengestu tries to make this explicit near the start, setting the scene with a game the three men play together, trying to name every revolution across the continent and testing each other for details over rounds of drinks. You can find a longer extract of this scene on The Guardian website (also includes a brief Q&A and link to a podcast), but here is a taster:
Joseph is short and stout like a tree stump. He has a large round face that looks like a moon pie. Kenneth used to tell him he looked Ghanaian.
"You have a typical Ghanaian face, Joe. Round eyes. Round face. Round nose. You're Ghanaian through and through. Admit it and let's move on."
Joe would stand up then and theatrically slam his fist into the table, or into his palm, or against the wall. "I am from Zaire," he would yell out. "And you are an ass." Or, more recently, and in a much more subdued tone: "I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Next week it may be something different. I admit that. Perhaps tomorrow I'll be from the Liberated Land of Laurent Kabila. But today, as far as I know, I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo."
This is my favourite part of the scene, for the ability to capture so much of the confusion and regret in parts of the the continent.

My only significant criticism of the book is that it is written with no reflection of the speech patterns of the various characters. On the one hand, this makes for successful reading because the reader is not distracted by dialects or accents on the page. On the other hand, I am used to reading African titles which do reflect where people are from - Helon Habila and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie being excellent examples of writers working in this way (even well-known and perhaps more mainstream writers like Michael Ondaatje and Alexander McCall Smith do this successfully). But perhaps this is a small and petty criticism.

This is not a book where much dramatic happens. As Logan Circle begins to gentrify, Sepha spirals slowly out of control with his life. It is the sense of loss, which is palpable and poignant here, and for that it is highly recommended reading.

See Dinaw at a reading on youtube.



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