This is a work of fiction, right? Of course it is but Dinaw Mengestu’s deft hand makes it believable. That is the whole problem with his writing. You get to ‘see’, ‘feel’ and ‘walk’ with the characters.
At the center of Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is Sepha Stephanos, the Ethiopian who leaves his Addis Ababa home one fateful day after the soldiers burst into the family home and beat his lawyer father to pulp. As they leave with him, he hazily sees his wife and two young sons through the one eye the soldiers did not leave swollen.
With the last of the family heirlooms, he skips into Kenya and finds himself ultimately reunited with an uncle, Berhane, in the USA. He shares the uncle’s sparsely furnished apartment for a while until he decides to go out on his own. The uncle’s job is no motivation for Sepha to stay. He’d chase the American Dream away from his uncle’s obsequiousness to Uncle Sam.
But after 17 years in America, all he has to show for it is a small general dealer’s store in the most unattractive part of town. For a while there’s a spring in his step and a flicker in his eye when Judith, a white woman, moves in next door. She brings with her Naomi, her precocious little daughter who gainfully begins to occupy Mr Stephanos’ life. They read books together in his store and his life has purpose. For a while he hallucinates this could be the family America hands him on a silver platter. They even share what he was sure was a kiss, however fleeting.
But it is not to be. First they are from two different stations in life – she a history professor and he a poor African immigrant with modest dreams. When she is hounded out of his neighbourhood – because she is white – he comes back to Mother Earth with a thud. A brick is hurled into her car and her house is set alight.
When she leaves Naomi in Connecticut after a Christmas holiday Sepha was convinced was going to be his best ever – he even brought them presents – he snaps out of this dream world. What is left for him is the company of friends Kenneth from Kenya and Joseph – Joe from Congo – plus an endless supply of cheap wine and prostitutes his daily takings can afford him. This, and contact with his mother and younger brother Dawit back home form the core of his reality.
Counting off coups and dictators of the continent with Kenneth and Joseph proves more realistic and long-lasting than the white mother-and-daughter apparition that briefly entered his life.
Mengestu writes well.
Editor’s Note: Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, published in 2007 was released in the UK under the title, Children of the Revolution.
© makatilemedia 06/2011