Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The African Literary Takeover Continues

I just read an excerpt from a new Ethiopian novel by Dinaw Mengestu. His novel, due out in March from Riverhead Books, is called The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. (Not to gripe, but I swear, when was the last time the title of an African novel, not counting those of Nurrudin Farah, was under four words long? And how come they all sound so ESL-ish? See also, Notes From the Hyena's Belly, Beasts of No Nation, Half of a Yellow Sun, and The God Who Begat a Jackal.)

Anyway, the excerpt of TBTTHB is entitled, rather blandly, "Addis Ababa, 1977" (Harper's fault not Dinaw's). It's only a couple thousand words long, but it packs a crippling punch.

The brief episode is told from the vantage point of a young man, now older and looking back on the day his father was taken away by Ethiopian soldiers of Mengistu Hailemariam's army. The excerpt dangles the following tantalizing elements before us: A handful of counter-revolutionary materials. A truckload of soldiers. A father who will not give up his son. One last, searing look. It's about all you need to realize that Dinaw Mengestu, when he's not trying to sound like Rushdie, can write his ass off.

Although, if one must be a grammarian, Dinaw gets the only Amharic word in the whole excerpt wrong. In a climactic moment during which the soldiers discover a pile of dissident flyers, the property of the young MALE narrator, the boy's mother tells him, "Zimbe. Shut up."

Zimbe is what you say when you want a FEMALE to shut up. (I have the Amharic vocabulary of a chimp and even I know that.) What his mother meant to say, of course, was "Zimbel. Shut up."

Which is what I'm about to do right now.

But first! Disclosure: As it turns out, I realize I kind of know Dinaw. By that I mean we went to the same school at around the same time. (Dinaw got his MFA at Columbia while I was still an undergrad there.) I used to notice him around campus. He was always in one spot, standing outside of Dodge Hall, talking with much hipper people than myself. Dodge Hall housed the entirety of Columbia's Fine Arts offerings: Dance, Film, Art, Theater, Writing. Everything was in one building the size of a meager UWS apartment complex. On occassion, I recall that Dinaw and I would see each other, notice each other as fellow countrymen (it's unmistakable really), kind of pause, let that moment of mutual recognition pass between us (you know what I'm talking about), and then we'd quickly return to whatever it was we were doing. Him smoking usually. Me surrounded by a small army of beautiful women.

(Cough, cough.)

I've wasted my life.


Elisabeth said...

I read the uncorrected, limited publication of Dinaw Mengestu's book and I loved it. Zemb is not for female. I understood what he meant (I wrote and read amharic) I loved, loved the book. He writes great! I am proud of him. I can't wait until the final book comes out.

Cedar Waxwing said...

I finished the book a couple of nights ago and just attended a reading in DC. The book is wonderful - beautifully written and powerful at the same time. I loved, loved it too. And he seems like a really sweet person.