All Our Names is the story of Isaac, a young African on the run from the political chaos of Idi Amin’s Uganda, and Helen, the social worker assigned to look after him when he arrives in America. Laden with emotional baggage, they embark on a controversial love affair. All Our Names is a quietly contemplative and beautifully constructed story with a window into the brutal world of African politics and race relations in America in the 1970s.
Our protagonist arrives in America having assumed the identity and visa of his close and charismatic friend Isaac, a key player in the revolution against Amin. Somewhat confusingly, we end up with two Isaacs in this story: our narrator and his best friend.
Looking back, Isaac explains how the two of them hung out at the Kampala’s University grounds, not as students, as that was reserved for the wealthy and well connected, but simply because they had nothing else to do. ‘Fuelled by ecstatic promises of a socialist, Pan-African dream’ and fantasies of being revolutionaries, they instigate campus uprisings.
Late 1960s was a dangerous time in Uganda’s political history and soon both Isaacs are involved in high-risk underground political activism. Before long, they are caught up in a maelstrom of violence, brutal killings and a movement, whose original ideals quickly fade.
As their leader says when challenged why he ‘has a woman scrub his floors’:
‘He laughed at me. He said, ‘That’s why people become revolutionaries – so they can have someone else clean their floors.’
Stuck in a monotonous existence in a nondescript midwestern town, Helen also feels she lives a life devoid of purpose. Her controversial mixed-race attraction (remember, we are in a America in the 1970s) to Isaac fuelled by a desire to feel alive.
‘This is a hard part of the country to have come to,’ Isaac’s mentor advises him as he arrives in Illinois. ‘I will be fine’, Isaac retorts, ‘I will live as if I am not really here.’ And this is what he proceeds to do.
Helen and Isaac’s love affair is mainly played out in secret, mixed-race relationship way to controversial at the time. When they do venture outside, prejudice follows them like a dark shadow. There is a heart-breaking scene from a diner where Isaac receives his food on a plastic plate with plastic cutlery, while the waiter glances at the exit.
Isaac is like a blank sheet, his social services file containing only one page of vague information, his flat looks uninhabited, his family history unknown, his name not even his own. Places and people are fleeting and transitory to him.
Mengestu is preoccupied with identity and the consequences of erasing the past, the legacy of colonialism in Africa and the spiral of violence that followed. I think he’s at his best when he depicts the confusing and frightening world of the underground opposition.
If there was anything to fear in this world, it was men who came in under the cover of night, who sat in expensive cars behind tinted windows, with the engines running and the lights on, while they measured their safety and our value to them.
Isaac never fully understands what’s going on, and neither do we. Reading this book is a bit like peeking through a keyhole and only seeing part of the picture, while knowing that something terrible is happening right out of eyeshot. A creepy feeling, indeed.
It is rare to see a dual-narrative that weaves together two stories as effectively as in this book; only by piecing them together do we learn the full story of Isaac. Mengestu’s writing is laconic and, at times, melancholic. It is a story empty on physical details but rich on atmosphere and a very moving read.
Dinaw Mengestu, an Ethiopian-American author, a MacArthur genius grant recipient and a Guardian First Book Award winner is an author to look out for.
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu is published by Sceptre, 264 pages.