Exile as both metaphor and reality | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Exile as both metaphor and reality

Posted: Apr 19, 2015 at 1:35 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Title:  Children of the Revolution

Author: Dinaw Mengestu

Reviewer: Lindsay Barrett

Publisher: Vintage Books, London

It is a challenging task to treat the experience of separation from one’s homeland in a delicate, not to say rational, manner in a tale about passionate emotional encounters in exile, but that is what Ethiopian author



Dinaw Mengestu has achieved in his remarkably sensitive debut novel. He has created a hesitant and somewhat reticent protagonist in Sepha Stephanos, a lowly Ethiopian shopkeeper exiled in the USA for nearly two decades.  The spectre of his decidedly low self-esteem embodies the intense disenchantment of exiled Africans whose idealistic revolutionary dreams have been dashed by the reality of corruption and tyranny in their homelands. He is in fact one of a trio of such disenchanted “children of the revolution” the other two being his close friends Kenneth from Kenya and Joseph from the Congo.

As a result of the informal deterioration of interaction with his fellow exiles Stephanos grows increasingly nostalgic for his family and his homeland. It is this mood that informs his encounter with a neighbour who moves into a dilapidated apartment building and begins the work of rehabilitating it and also initiating a friendship with him that promises more but ends up providing less. The neighbour Judith is an attractive young white female university lecturer with a precocious young daughter. The child, Naomi, a sensitive and curious ten year old, becomes a close friend of Stephanos, a friendship that she initiates and consolidates by asking him to read to her from story books that she selects from a library and brings to the store. As this relationship grows the mother signals her own desire to develop a more intimate relationship with Stephanos herself but his natural reticence as well as his intrinsic shyness proves to be an obstacle rather than an asset. The encounter between himself and his neighbour therefore serves to reinforce the sense of separation and isolation that is the central core of the psychological dilemma that the author addresses in the entire work.

When Stephanos discovers that Judith was once married to an African university lecturer who is the father of her daughter, this fact only serves to reinforce his doubts about his own suitability as a suitor. He has grown increasingly doubtful of his own intellectual and social graces over the years as his shop has wasted away as a result of the national economic debility and a lack of interest on his part. Judith goes on vacation and returns without Naomi who she has placed in a boarding school and this signals the beginning of deeper separation between their lives. It is at this point that his friends Ken and Joe resurface as vital forces in the novel even though they remain marginal as active characters in the narrative. He regards their own gradual descent into a life of routine drudgery and loss of hope as symbolic of the abandonment of his dreams and the promise of a return to his homeland.

This sense of disorientation is also stressed through an incident in which he visits the home of a distant relative of his who had been his tentative guardian when he first arrived in the USA. His “uncle” is not in and as he snoops around the apartment he realises that they no longer have anything in common, except their mutual disenchantment with the conditions that had existed in their homeland when they escaped.

Dinaw Mengestu has a special talent for observing and describing the inner life of his characters while making it seem that he is simply narrating the ordinary processes of daily existence. The authority with which he deploys this facility is at the heart of the success of this simple tale of personal emotional frustration and gives it a resonance that belies its modest scale.  Naomi’s removal from his life and the loss of friendship that it entails is in fact the central loss that shapes Stephanos’ most profound reflections  on the dilemma that confronts him after he realises that Judith’s effort to connect with him has eventually been abortive. Mengestu has placed this effectively delineated failure of personal initiative right at the heart of his tale as he sums up the experiences that the community in which he lives has encountered in the period of his narrative.