In The Enigma of Arrival, V.S. Naipaul’s autobiographical narrator, a Trinidadian of Indian ancestry, finds himself living in the British countryside: “The idea of ruin and dereliction, of out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself, attached to myself: a man from another hemisphere, another background, coming to rest in middle life in the cottage of a half-neglected estate.” Sepha Stephanos, the Ethiopian shopkeeper who narrates Dinaw Mengestu’s graceful first novel, has Naipaul’s A Bend in the River behind his counter and a similar affinity for dilapidated surroundings–not the countryside but Washington, DC’s Logan Circle: “Four- and five-story mansions that had once belonged to someone of great import–a president’s cousin, or aunt, or maybe nephew–but that over the years had been neglected, burned out, or in my case, divided into cheap, sometimes cockroach-infested apartments…. I loved the circle for what it had become: proof that wealth and power were not immutable, and America was not always so great after all.”
The Naipaul novel was a gift from Joseph, a Congolese would-be intellectual who, with Kenneth, a Kenyan immigrant, visits Sepha’s shabby convenience store every Tuesday, where they drink whiskey and quiz one another on the violent upheavals of the continent they left as young men–“Name a dictator and then guess the year and country.” (“When we stop having coups, we can stop playing,” says Joseph.) They had met while working as bellhops at the Capitol Hotel seventeen years earlier, soon after Sepha fled the “red terror” at home. Their lives have not been without success since then–Joseph is a waiter at “the premier eating establishment of the District’s elite,” Kenneth has a job as an engineer, Sepha has his store–but they have been subjected to “enough mockery and humiliation to last us well beyond our lifetimes” and have long since relinquished their faith in the American Dream.
Logan Circle, however, is on the mend. New customers come into the store looking for bottled water, and once-boarded windows that formerly obscured crack addicts and homeless men now feature “curtains provocatively peeled back to reveal a warmly lit room with forest green couches, modern silver lamps that craned their necks like swans, and sleek glass coffee tables with fresh flowers bursting on top.” Sepha had been drawn to the neighborhood because “I didn’t have to be anything greater than what I already was,” but he greets the regeneration with hope–hope that his failing business will be buoyed by the rising tide and that his life might come to include two of the people it bears: Judith, a professor of American political history who has given up on her marriage and academic career, and her precocious young daughter, Naomi, who claims Sepha’s friendship easily (they read The Brothers Karamazov together) and whose “lighter than black but darker than white” skin is less like her mother’s than his own. Sepha’s account of the defeat of those hopes, over the course of five months, provides the novel’s narrative frame.
In Dave Eggers’s recent novel about a newly arrived Sudanese refugee, What Is the What, the narrator observes the casual cruelty of people robbing him and thinks, “You would not add to my suffering if you knew what I have seen.” Mengestu’s narrator has grown more resigned to the injustices of his life–“There is no denying anymore who we are and what we’ve become”–but the implicit plaint is the same. Interwoven with the arrival and departure of Judith and Naomi are Sepha’s recollections of the years that came before–the opening of the store, his difficult first years in America and his childhood in Addis Ababa as “a young boy with the greatest ambitions and dreams, guided by a prominent father and distinguished family background.” At the center of these memories is the day soldiers came and took his father away because of antirevolutionary fliers that Sepha had brought home: “I was only sixteen at the time. I didn’t believe in consequences yet.” It is a memory that he puzzles over but can never comprehend. (“Is it possible that they practiced this routine before coming over? Or is it something that’s grown organically out of their previous experiences?”) Mengestu’s impeccably controlled prose denies the relief of emotional release, but Sepha’s recollection of that day keens with sorrow and regret. It is naïve to wish that undeserved suffering could be a guarantee against which future happiness is redeemed, but to understand the trauma of Sepha’s experience is to feel the continual dashing of his modest hopes in America (that he might find intimacy, that he might eventually feel as though he belongs) as not simply unjust but obscene.
The force of the novel does not, however, derive solely from events two decades past. Sepha’s observations of his present life–the changing neighborhood and its marginalized inhabitants, the rhythms of the city–are wry and tender, making the poverty of his circumstances, emotional as much as material, seem all the more difficult to bear. Sepha, after all, is eminently equipped for a life other than “a poorly constructed substitution made up of one uncle, two friends, a grim store, and a cheap apartment.” And Joseph, whose deep appreciation for Dante’s Inferno (this is a literary story in the truest sense) gives the novel its title, would have been an intellectual if his family hadn’t lost everything to Mobutu. But one needn’t have been deprived of grand opportunities for disappointments to cause distress. Kenneth, the only one of Sepha’s friends to have a job requiring a suit, vehemently reminds Sepha and Joseph that he fled poverty, not war–that if he hadn’t come to America he would not be among Kenya’s elite but one of the “poor illiterates dying in slums”–yet he is so alienated in his nominally better life that he spends most evenings in a lawn chair in his apartment, laughing hysterically and arguing with himself. And one needn’t have been displaced to feel the contrast between inner and social life as insufferably sharp. In quiet, elegant tones, Mengestu achieves the uncommon feat of conveying the profound devastation of arbitrarily broken lives while illuminating the quotidian fractures in our own.