Posted by: Jeff | December 26, 2010

Book Review: “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” by Dinaw Mengestu

Ed. Note: I read this book and wrote this review some time ago, and am only now getting it posted.  Mengestu does have a new novel recently released, which I have not read but intend to.

As a site of many multilateral institutions and international organizations, Washington, D.C., is home to large communities of immigrants from all around the world.  One of the largest such communities in Washington is the Ethiopian diaspora, which the Ethiopian Embassy estimates to be at least 200,000 strong.  With such a high concentration of Ethiopian residents in the region, local politics and culture is permeated by Ethiopian influences – from the glut of successful restaurants along 9th St. NW to the inclusion of the Amharic language in many District government publications.  It is perhaps somewhat surprising, then, that there are relatively few works published in English that capture the lives and experiences of such a large and vibrant community.  It is to this end that Dinaw Mengestu dedicates his first novel, an illumination of one Ethiopian man trying to make his way in the heart of an American city struggling with issues of race, poverty, and cultural acceptance.

The jacket sleeve of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears promises a story of racial tension and dramatic events that transform a neighborhood, but make no mistake about it: this book is a deeply personal narrative. Writing in the first person, Mengistu infuses a depth of emotion to Sepha, his narrator, that makes it nearly impossible to believe it is a work of fiction. Sepha’s story is anything but typical to those who imagine a closely-knit community reliant upon one another for family and support.  Indeed, decades after arriving in America Sepha remains largely isolated and alone, with little reason to get up and walk the 100 yards from home to shop each morning.

Sepha’s yearning for a different life is palpable but always balanced by his fear of change.  The arrival of a bright, attractive woman and her daughter next door offers Sepha the opportunity to take a chance.   In his interactions with Naomi, a precocious young girl with a taste for Russian literature, Sepha finds contentedness and is almost embarrassed by the tenderness that he begins to feel.  Naomi draws Sepha to herself and gives him something he has always missed: a sense of purpose.  To this point in his life, Sepha has always gone through the motions.   Even his conversations with his only two friends in the world, fellow African exiles Kenneth and Joseph, are stale repetitions of conversations past.  Naomi represents something new, something that Sepha cherishes.

However, his fear of opening himself to the outside world leads to self-loathing and his eventual helpless passivity as the outside world turns against the only person he’s ever allowed himself to love.  As the neighborhood succumbs to ugly racial tension, Sepha finds himself standing by as all that he has begun to hold dear unravels.

Living in D.C., this story takes on a life of its own. The depiction of the quiet Logan Circle neighborhood is difficult to imagine for those recent District transplants who know it only as a neighborhood of beautifully restored homes, high-brow beer bars and shady trees. However, in a city of immigrants, Sepha’s story is not entirely unimaginable.

A few months ago, a series of delays and incidents on the Metro system forced me to hail a cab to make it to work on time.  On the way, I had a conversation with a taxi driver from Ethiopia that left an impact.  My driver was a very open man, and after finding that I studied African politics in graduate school, he took it upon himself to share his story.   He left Ethiopia as a young man, fleeing the Red Terror.  The turmoil of the 1980s left his father – like Sepha’s – a victim of politicide.  He remarked that he would never return to Ethiopia, as it held nothing for him to return to.  In the United States his children had grown and moved on to college, achieving something he never would have been able to dream of in Africa.  And in the end, he could only toast the miracle of democracy.   “You want to know why America is a great country? Al Gore lost the 2000 election by only a few votes, but he did not kill anyone. That is the difference between America and Ethiopia. Here there is democracy. Here people are free.”

Though Sepha’s story is certainly a melancholy one, in the end one is left with a glimmer of hope.  Sepha’s detached trip through the city fosters in him a new resolve – to build for himself the life he has always longed for in a place where dreams are possible with a little hope.

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