All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu is told in two voices. Alternate chapters, told in the first person, are headed “Isaac” and “Helen,” so it’s tempting to think that those are the two narrators. But shifting names and shifting identities are the central theme of this book, and so it’s best not to succumb to that temptation right away.
“Isaac’s” chapters are told by a young man who comes from Ethiopia to Uganda in the early 1970s, ostensibly to be a student. When he arrives, he finds a dizzying sense of new beginnings, self-invention, revolution. Young men from all over Africa have come to the university to learn, but mostly to gather in each other’s company. Most of them are adopting new names:
Back then, all the boys our age wanted to be revolutionaries. On campus, and in the poor quarters where Isaac and I lived, there were dozens of Lumumbas, Marleys, Malcolms, Césaires, Kenyattas, Senghors, and Selassies, boys who who woke up every morning and donned the black hats and olive-green costumes of their heroes.[…] 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’s 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. […]
“For now, Isaac is it,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, it’s his friend Isaac, the one who had no need to take a new name, who is the real revolutionary of the two. At first, Isaac provokes fights with the wealthier students (who he says are all really named “Alex.”) Later, Isaac finds himself close to the center of the inner circle of those who plan the revolution — the leader, a hard-eyed strategist, is named Joseph, and Isaac becomes his friend. Although he never quite leaves his old friend the narrator behind, there is a power differential that separates the two of them. In one very striking scene, the narrator has been away while the revolutionary soldiers were out making a strike. When he returns to camp, the soldiers are also returning, many of them wounded or dead. He fears Isaac may be among them, so he helps unload the trucks:
After the second body, I stopped paying attention to the features. I looked as long as it took to know whether it was Isaac, and if the body was clearly shorter, taller, or heavier than Isaac, I didn’t look at all. I simply grabbed the stiff arms and passed them to the next pair of hands. after the fifteenth or twentieth, I decided to think of them as a single body named Adam. In my head I said, “You were a brave soldier, Adam… Your mother and father will miss you… You should have stayed in your village, Adam… You had no reason to come here… You could have gone to school and become a doctor, Adam.” And when I ran out of endings, I simply thought, “Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam,” until we had carried the last body out of the lorry, and I could risk a small breath of relief: though there were more than a hundred Adams, there wasn’t a single Isaac.
It’s a deeply moving passage. It balances both against the fact that many of these soldiers chose new names for themselves — the Lumumbas, the Selassies — and against the way Isaac mockingly nicknamed all his wealthy enemies “Alex.” The narrator chooses to call each one Adam, with its connotations of the first man in creation, made of earth and returning to earth; named rather than going unnamed to the grave. Afterward, when Isaac and the narrator meet again, their deep friendship has been both violated and somehow solidified by this act of grief and violence: they trust each other with far more than most friendships ever have to bear.
“Helen’s” chapters take a different trajectory. Helen lives in a small Midwestern town (suspiciously like the small Midwestern town I used to live in, as a matter of fact). She’s a social worker, she lives with her mother, and she’s never traveled or reflected much on the culture that surrounds her. Even her own name doesn’t mean anything to her: “My father named me Helen for reasons he couldn’t remember.” When she’s assigned to Isaac Mabira, a university exchange student from Africa, in order to help him adjust to American life, she expects nothing; what would she expect?
But Isaac is mysterious. There is nothing in his file except his name — none of the usual family or background information. He is, in fact, the most interesting and beautiful person she has ever encountered. He and she quickly start sleeping together, but they don’t get much further along toward understanding each other. Isaac is an outsider, and everything has been taken from him; in return, he keeps his knowledge private. Helen wants to say she loves him, wants to make a stand, but she doesn’t really know what that would look like, and she doesn’t really want to take the consequences of doing such a thing. (Lunch together at a diner, during which Isaac is quietly given his food on a paper plate while Helen is given ordinary china, is disastrous.) She begins neglecting her work and ignoring her friends in favor of stalking Isaac, hoping she can find something out about him. She knows he is only in the US temporarily, but she can hardly bear the idea of letting him go. What can she do — what can anyone do — in the face of inevitable loss?
This book is oddly unbalanced. “Isaac’s” chapters are vivid, detailed, hot with memory. Scene after scene brought a particular place to the mind’s eye, evoking the stoop that makes you recognize someone in a crowd, or the way being thirsty makes time pass more slowly. Mengestu thoroughly understands that sadness and difficult truth come from painful experience, but so do deep connections. The prose had that slightly swinging, faintly stilted gait that translated prose sometimes does (though this novel was written in English): it gave the very effective feel of someone writing in a language other than his native tongue.
“Helen’s” chapters, on the other hand, were also written in choppy, faintly stilted prose (a different style from Isaac’s), but it just made it feel as if she had rather muddled thoughts. The stereotype of a single white woman who has been very sheltered, who has never been anywhere or done anything or lived outside of her own rut until she encounters The Other — and in a very exoticized and sexualized context — has been done to death. I kept looking for this relationship to be more interesting than that, but I couldn’t see it. Helen is childlike and impulsive, unprofessional and blinkered. Her insights, such as they are, are not deep. Why Mengestu chose to portray her this way is beyond me. Half of this book is so sharply drawn, and the themes of elegy and loss in a violent and temporary world hold so much potential; after all, they are universal. But I couldn’t really get past the dull smudge of the other half.