Set some time in the 1970s, All Our Names is told via two narrators. One is Helen, a young, white social worker with the Lutheran Relief Services in Laurel, a fictitious American mid-western town and the other is Isaac, an Ethiopian boy who arrives in the town on a student visa.
Volunteering to help Isaac acclimatise to his new life, Helen falls in love with the enigmatic young man though she knows little about him. His file notes are scant, his folder contains only “a single loose leaf of paper. . . . There was no month or date of birth, only a year. His place of birth was listed only as Africa, with no country or city. The only solid fact was his name, Isaac Mabira, but even that was no longer substantial: Any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would have changed.” Isaac is thus an enigma to Helen — a man “made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in.” The truth about his identity and his past are slow to emerge. Isaac is not even his real name it transpires, but an identity borrowed from a friend at university in Kampala so he could escape from a country where the “ecstatic promises of a socialist, Pan-African dream” have faded into civil war and unrest. He’d made his way from Ethopia to Uganda via Kenya, along the way shedding the 13 ancestral names his father had given him. Through the course of the novel we learn that he replaced these with new names, sometimes being referred to as Langston and other times as the Professor and finally Isaac.
The real Isaac is a boy from the slums of Kampala. The pair met at the university campus, a place both were too poor and ill-connected to join officially so they are forced to hang around on its fringes. Isaac ( the real one) is a charismatic figure, an idealist who is determined to make his mark on the world and to play a part in his country’s future. The colonial era is over but the time of the dictators is looming and like many young Africans Isaac is swept up in the excitement of its possibilities. Impetuous by nature he taunts the rich students, plasters the corridors with posters and eventually stokes a small revolt, which spirals out of control. His more cautious friend Langston trails in his wake, dreaming only of a future as a writer. When Isaac’s idealistic fervour takes him further down the revolutionary path, an attempted coup and resulting brutal actions, mean the parting of the ways for the two friends. Isaac remains in Uganda building his reputation as a paramilitary leader while Langston, a born survivor, flees, his assumed identity ensuring their names remain interchangeable while their lives cease to coexist.
His identity is further stripped from him when he encounters the reality of life in a small town not yet ready to open its minds to the idea of racial equality. One day Helen plans to take him to a diner in town that “was never officially segregated, but I couldn’t remember anyone who wasn’t white eating there, either.” Anticipating trouble, before she leaves to pick him up, she “wrote down on a piece of paper, in case I forgot it later: ‘We have every right to be here.'” But the people at the diner don’t agree. At first the waitress is sent over to ask if maybe they would like to get their food to go. And then when Isaac says, “No. We would rather eat it here,” she returns with their orders: Helen’s on the standard cream-colored plates, and Isaac’s on a “stack of thin paper plates barely large enough to hold the food.”
It’s a salutary reminder that their affair, so far kept hidden from Helen’s work colleagues and her mother, will need to remain a secret. Since neither of them can be who they truly want to be, the book depicts a world in which people’s names and identities can be another casualty of violence and oppression.
Mengustu portrays these issues in a tone that is reflective and restrained. Long on mood but short on details, many elements of this novel remain an enigma, so we are left to decide for ourselves what happens to the lovers.
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia though emigrated to America when he was a child. Now an English professor at Georgetown University, “All Our Names,” is his third novel. I had never heard of him when I happened on a copy at the Hay Literary Festival. After skimming the first page I had a feeling this would be one book I would enjoy. And so it proved. I’ve seen a few reviews where critics have commented that they didn’t think All Our Names was actually his best work. That’s just made me even more determined to find the earlier work.