Monday, November 10, 2008

“Children of the Revolution” (US title: The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears) by Dinaw Mengestu

Year of publication: 2007
Setting and Time: Washington DC, present time, with flashbacks to previous years in USA and Ethiopia
Themes: immigration, social inequalities, racial issues, Africa, interracial love

The Guardian First Book Award 2007

About the author: Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. In 1980 he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, joining his father who had fled Ethiopia during the Red Terror. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction and a recipient of a 2006 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Plot: Seventeen years after fleeing the revolutionary Ethiopia that claimed his father’s life, Sepha Stephanos is a man still caught between two existences: the one he left behind aged nineteen, and the new life he has forged in Washington DC. Sepha spends his days in a sort of limbo: quietly running his grocery store into the ground, revisiting the Russian classics, and toasting the old days with his friends Kenneth and Joseph, themselves emigrants from Africa. But when a white woman named Judith moves next door with her only daughter, Naomi, Sepha’s life seems on the verge of change.

Some thoughts: This is a sad novel about the sad life of an African man in Washington DC. It is a bit depressing and pessimistic, but probably realistic. Sepha falls in love with a white woman, Judith, and for a while their relationship seems to evolve, but then everything fades away (you know that from the beginning, so this is not a spoiler!). What keeps you interested is the reason why this special friendship between the two main characters has broken. Sepha is (on purpose, maybe?) a bit annoying: he is passive and reluctant to make his relationships grow. He is really fond of Naomi, Judith’s precocious daughter, but is unable to show his feelings to both Naomi and her mother.
Nonetheless, I expected more information on Ethiopian politics and customs, as well as on the circumstances of Sepha’s departure for the United States, considering that the author is also of Ethiopian origin. Nonetheless, I really liked the game that Sepha plays with his friends Kenneth and Joseph: they name African countries and dictators, trying to remember the year of every coup. Africa comes out as a wounded continent: the nationalities of Kenneth and Joseph are not really important, what is important is that they are all African immigrants, they all share a past of violence and nostalgia for their countries. For this reason I was surprised when one of them says that he doesn’t consider Mauritania as Africa because Mauritanians are Arabs.
Race doesn’t play a big part in the novel, whereas you can say that social inequalities are the main concern of Mengestu, at least in this novel. The process with which a poor black neighbourhood becomes fashionable through speculation and injustices shows an unusual and sad portrait of Washington DC, a city that is often associated with powerful and rich people.
Overall, it was a beautiful book, considering that the author is only 30 years old and has plenty of time to write even better novels on the Ethiopian experience in America. One last remark: why did they change the title from The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (a quotation from Dante) to Children of the Revolution when this book was released in the UK? None of them is appropriate in my humble opinion: the first title gives the impression that the book is permeated with the beauty of Africa or with the beauty of life, whereas the second one evokes memories of the political unrest of Ethiopia. Both things are barely mentioned in the novel; did I miss something? Both the song by T-Rex and the quotation are explained in the book, so I guess I didn't quite get their significance in the book.

Speaking about Africa, today we all mourn one of the best musicians that Africa has ever had: Miriam Makeba, a symbol of the fight against apartheid and a great performer. Goodbye Mama Afrika!


  1. I'll try to find this book in italian:hope to find it!

  2. You should be able to find it in Italian bookshops without any problems, the cover is different though.

  3. in italiano credo sia stato pubblicato col titolo "Le Cose Belle che porta il Cielo" (se non mi sbaglio... avevo letto la recensione su Internazionale)

    by the way, I knew the book by its American title (they translated that one and used it for the French version too...).

    now Mengestu is writing a new book, which should be published by the end of this year. I can't wait to read both: I've heard marvels about his first book and they say his style is great.

    have you noticed that lately there has been a kind of "literary invasion" by African and Africa-born American writers?

    as usual, thanks for your reviews!

    hugs and kisses


  4. Ciao passavo da queste parti e ti lascio un salutino ed una buona giornata!!

  5. Actually there has been an invasion but all kinds of immigration literature. Africa has always been an outsider in world literature but it's a fascinating continent. Some African writers who grew up in Africa and had an African education used to write things that are difficult to understand for us westerners (the ancestors, juju, dreams and traditions), but now as more Africans have studied abroad or have a partially "westernized" education, they can write in a style that is more accessible for us, for example with a story line that has a clear structure and a clear-cut ending/meaning.
    I remember reading some short stories by Ben Okri (a Nigerian writer) and thinking "What the hell is happening here?". The guy has a weird dream with masks and ancestors, then he meets his dead wife and he wakes up. So what? I'm not saying that it was a bad story, but only that I didn't understand what the author wanted to tell me, probably because I don't have the tools to understand African story-telling...

  6. you write: "Actually there has been an invasion but all kinds of immigration literature.". i don't really see it in this way. some "immigration literatures" have been published in Europe since ages: think about Latin American, Japanese and Arab writers for example.
    but i do agree that the reason behind what i called a "literary invasion of African and Africa-born American writers" is the way young writers are structuring (can i use this word? maybe it better "building" or "setting up"?) their novels.
    i guess it depends also on globalization and on power relations in the literary world (trends, prizes...).
    i know Ben Okri, but in front of his novels i feel the same... i think he tried to set up a kind of "Southern American magical realism" with an African perspective and background.

    yesterday i went out with some Palestinian girls and the eldest sister and i started to talk about literature and she told me she's a passion for African literature, suggesting to read Senegalese Mariam Ba's "Une si longue lettre".
    maybe i'll see her again today... we'll exchange some books. do you have any suggestion for her? (i already told her that i want to read "Children of the Revolution" and told her to check "Beasts of no nation", "Half of a yellow sun" and "Allah n'est pas oblige'")

    looking forward to your advices...


  7. Just passed by to say hi. Sounds quite an interesting book, hoping to find it in Italy. African books, especially those written by immigrants, often do not embrace the deserved encouragement, promotion and or attention here in Italy. I know many people who have published several books, like me, vowing not to try it any more.

  8. CLAUDS: "Immigration literature" is a trend nowadays more than it used to be until a few years ago, but it's true that some writers started long ago, for example in France. I was thinking more of 20th century literature and how writers from many continents have finally joined the table of world literature, which used to be mostly European and/or American-based. Speaking of trends and best-sellers, this seems to be the fashion just now, with Zadie Smith, Rushdie, Desai and Lahiri riding the big wave.
    I also want to read "Une si longue lettre" ("So Long A Letter" in English)! You could suggest that she should read something by Gordimer, "Burger's Daughter" or "A World of Stranger". Now I'm starting "Purple Hibiscus" by Adichie and I will tell you if it's as wonderful as "half of a yellow sun". Chinua Achebe should also be really good, but I haven't read any of his books yet.

    BLESSING: You're always welcome here to comment and join our discussions. It's true that books written by immigrants in Italy are not welcomed very well. We're still a small step behind in Italy. The only way you could do it is by writing something very exotic or about magical realism, the sort of stuff Coelho would write, ahahah! But not too difficult, if you name "juju" then people would go like "What the hell?". :))))
    The problem is the publishing business in Italy: they only promote horrible stuff like Moccia.
    Also, reading a good book is not so common in Italy compared to the UK. When I take the underground here everybody is reading a novel. In Italy I see a lot more people reading newspapers (serious ones I mean, not The Sun), but few people reading novels. I guess that it's funny to learn about the last quarrels in our parliament! :)

  9. un altro interessante post dei tuoi... è sempre un piacere venirti a trovare... complimenti e ciao....kalos