Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Dinaw Mengestu’s “The Paper Revolution” was originally published in the January 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
The last (and only) thing I read by Mengestu was “An Honest Exit” (my thoughts here), an excerpt from his novel How to Read the Air. I enjoyed that piece, despite the fact it was clearly an excerpt. I cannot say the same for “The Paper Revolution,” another excerpt, this time from Mengestu’s forthcoming novel All Our Names.
“The Paper Revolution” has a lot going for it (which suggests the novel might be excellent): it takes place in Uganda in the early 1970s, just after colonization but before it was clear the new regimes were corrupt and violent.
The problem, from my perspective, is that it tells a familiar story. A young man who grew up poor in Ethiopia, dreaming only of escape, finally gets out and goes to the university in Kampala, Uganda. A bit unsure of himself or his views, he nevertheless has a hunger for change, inspired a great deal by the 1962 African Writers Conference held in Kampala. At the university (and a lot has changed in Kampala in the decade since that writers conference) he meets another, more outspoken young man who stirs the pot. We see the ending coming from the beginning because we’ve seen it time and time again.
I had additional problems, primarily in the dry, information dump delivery. The narrator’s emotions barely register, which might be the point in the novel, but which makes this “story” flat.
Those are the broad strokes, though. There are individual pieces that I quite enjoyed, and that lend themselves to some interesting themes, such as the way the narrator calls Kampala “the capitol” in an effort to make it more universal and strip it of any local trappings. However, my overall take on this one leads me away from and not toward the new novel.
I am familiar with Dinaw Mengestu from his 2006 Rolling Stone reportage from the Darfur camps. I recommend this detailed, compassionate, on-the-scene article (“Back to the Tragedy of Darfur”) to you (here).
This week’s New Yorker story is very different from Mengestu’s reporting. In his Page Turner interview with Willing Davidson (here), Mengestu points out that this story will be set in the past: “I began this story knowing I wanted to write a narrative that began in that all too brief moment between the end of colonialism and the rise of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes across Africa.”
His narrator arrives by bus in Kampala the early 70s hoping to become a writer. This young man has sought out the university in Kampala because this is where the first African Writers Conference, organized by poet Langston Hughes, had taken place in 1962. Hughes had spent much of the 50s compiling an anthology of the work of African writers (An African Treasury, 1960), and his conference in Kampala was attended by the African literary elite, among them Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. The twenty-five-year-old narrator of “Paper Revolution” says that his life was given focus by what he had heard about that gathering.
In “Paper Revolution” (an excerpt from the upcoming novel All Our Names), we know the speaker only as “Langston,” a name he has taken in honor of his own literary hopes. New names, in fact, are a thread in this story, suggesting the sense of new birth that was surging in Africa at that time, but also suggesting a sense of fragility. Many of the students bear names of the recent African leaders who have brought their countries out of colonialism. The narrator says:
On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me.
“Langston” hangs out at the university where there are many others just like him:
Though we couldn’t afford to take classes, we all wanted to be revolutionaries.
“Langston” makes a friend of “Isaac,” a poor young man like himself, but someone possessed of political imagination. We watch the two boys (Langston admits that he is younger than his age) try to make their way in the amorphous community they have joined. They watch, they listen, and slowly Isaac begins to formulate a path. He gathers people to him. First, he becomes well-known by the “interrogations” he conducts with the rich students. Then, he furthers the mystery that surrounds him by posting some enigmatic and compelling flyers. These flyers mock the university posters that say, “It is a Crime Against the Country to Deface our University Walls.”
Isaac’s name recalls the biblical patriarch whose father wanted to sacrifice him to God, the name suggesting to us the danger that Isaac the revolutionary may be in. In fact, Isaac offers himself up as “sacrifice” when he throws a stone at another student, thus incurring a brutal beating upon himself. His appearance testifies to his determination in a far more visceral manner than the fatigues worn by the so-called revolutionaries. Isaac’s name also apparently signifies someone who laughs, perhaps referring to the enigmatic manner Isaac uses to make it clear he is not awed by the wealthier students.
The story has the detached point of view of the poet: although “a noose” is tightening around the city, and although the fiery necklacing attacks on soldiers have begun, Langston stays in the city. The story is troubling — there are vast numbers of young “revolutionaries” but there is no vision, and for many, no money and no prospects. They are simply waiting, it seems, for a charismatic leader to show them the way.
Mengestu’s Darfur reporting alone makes him a writer worth following. The New Yorker selected him in 2010 as one of the 20 under 40 notable fiction writers. As with many excerpts, I do not think that “Paper Revolution” fairly represents the author’s talent and scope. That, I think, would require reading the forthcoming novel All Our Names. There is a sadness in the narrator’s voice that reflects on the “poor preparation” he and the other young men of the age had for the freedoms that release from colonialism would demand. The narrator’s tone presages something far wider and more cataclysmic than mere student uprising; in the tone you hear the coming tragedies of Uganda.