I arrived in the capital poorly prepared. I had read the same Victorian novels a dozen times, and I assumed that was how proper English was spoken. I said "sir" constantly. No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn't have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer. Until I met Isaac, I hadn't made a single friend. With my long skinny legs and narrow face, he said I looked more like a professor than a fighter, and in the beginning that was what he called me: Professor, or the Professor, the first but not the last name he christened me.
"And what about you?" I asked him. I assume, like others, he had another, more public name that he wanted to be known by. He was shorter but wider than me, each of his arms tightly laced with muscles and veins that ran like scars the length of his forearms. He had the build but not the face and demeanor of a soldier. He smiled and laughed too often for me to imagine he could ever hurt someone.
"For now, 'Isaac' is it," he said. (p. 10, iPad iBooks e-editon)
Dinaw Mengestu's third novel, All Our Names, is a tale that revolves around the issues of identity, or to be more correct, the stripping of and rebranding of identities. There are two main narrative threads here, one set in late 1960s/early 1970s Uganda and the other sometime later in a Midwestern town, likely somewhere near Chicago. In the first, we see the budding friendship between this recent Ethiopian youth's arrival in Uganda and his friendship with the quasi-Revolutionary Isaac; the latter details this man's complex relationship with the relief worker assigned to help him adjust to life in the US. There are some interesting parallels between these two narrative tracks and Mengestu's alternating scenes brings these connections close to the reader's mind.
The Isaac/Africa chapters in particular are chilling to read. Mengestu develops the Isaac/youth relationship very well, showing through their deepening friendship how Marxist rhetoric has begun to take hold in Uganda, especially as Isaac becomes close to one of the revolutionary leaders, Joseph. Although his name is not mentioned directly, Idi Amin's specter looms large over the latter Isaac chapters, as the seemingly naive Marxist university revolutionaries begin to try to enforce their mudled visions of a socialist, perhaps pan-African society on a resistant populace. The list of atrocities mount as these dreams shift toward something approaching a societal nightmare.
The Helen/America chapters serve not only as brief interludes between this mounting violence, but also as a look into the changed youth, as his previously-created identities have been stripped from him (the reasons for this are revealed in the Isaac chapters). He and the social worker Helen become close, but she, too, is another Isaac, one who finds herself wanting to rebel against a racially polarized society yet not really understanding the import of her increasingly flamboyant public appearances with the youth entail. Mengestu shows these looming pitfalls in subtle ways, from the glances not understood to terse yet poignant comments made over the course of a fateful meal at a local diner.
Each of the two tracks, although separated by years of narrative time, build upon each other thematically. As the youth and Isaac see their idealistic dreams mutate into something horrific and as the killer in one threatens to become the killer in the other, so too does the Helen/youth dynamic shift as her vague, perhaps naive perceptions of what an interracial relationship might entail changes into something deeper, something where self-identity becomes more central. At first, these thematically parallels are not obvious, but by story's end, Mengestu has constructed his narratives so well that the two blend into one another almost seamlessly.
The prose here strengthens the power of these thematic explorations of identity. Mengestu does not reveal as much as he alludes and yet these allusions do not feel annoying as much as they become mysteries to be solved or at least explored. The youth's shedding of identities can be seen as a metaphor for immigrants perhaps, choosing (if not forced) to take on a new identity now that the old one cannot/will not serve them. Or perhaps there are parallels to the experiences of those from the socialist-inspired regimes of East Africa of the 1970s and 1980s who managed to survive the violent changes to life and society during that time, albeit not unscathed by the rapid abandonment of traditional socio-economic systems for an imported model whose failed implementation cost millions their lives.
All Our Names is a captivating novel, one that blends together good prose, excellent characterizations, and strong themes into a whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts. It is, however, a story that does not answer all of its mysteries, but then again, those mysteries are part of what adds to its appeal. It is Mengestu's best novel to date and hopefully a sign that he will continue to produce excellent fictions that force readers to consider closely how they and others view the world around them.