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A universal, youth anthem by Dinaw Mengestu: All Our Names



Genre: Novel

Author: Dinaw Mengestu

Title: All Our Names, 2014

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf,

Format: Hardcover

Synopsis: Dinaw Mengestu begins his novel with….”When Isaac and I met….” This statement is the primary truth of the novel. The African “I” of this book is an aspiring revolutionary, but he is in reality simply a lost boy. He is lucky to meet a kindred spirit named Isaac. These two, young men are tragically entwined in pursuit of an identity and a place to belong. Their chosen place of refuge is the university. At this venue, they can attempt to ‘fit in’ and camouflage their identity and social and economic poverty. It is a time revolution in the idealistic 1970’s. At first, the two men ‘dream-up,’ contrived identities as revolutionaries engaging in political anarchy. The young men later befriend fellow comrades on the campus. In truth, the only revolt that the young men are involved in is the one against the poverty and the anonymity which bridles them from being real students. They are poor boys estranged from a society that negates their dreams and existence. Later, the fantasy of being revolutionaries becomes real. Danger beckons at the door and Isaac senses that the outcome will not be good. A love affair with an American foreigner saves Isaac’s friend. He can go to America. But the one who is left behind is the tragic hero that surrenders his emotional hold to let his friend go. Isaac arranges the escape of his friend from their mutual fantasy to the reality of a safe haven. This is the true revolution that both men aspire to. But, only one achieves it through the sacrifice of another. Readers must read this book with the awareness that current events in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are a part of the story-line.

Critique: This is a haunting work. All Our Names provides insight into the youth of the Arab Spring. This setting of this book is in Africa, but the revolt is spreading across The Third World. The author, Dinaw Mengestu, has created a symbolic work about the hunger and desire of a generation past. The fight for liberation, however, continues. The main characters, in this novel, progress from innocents to activists. The loss of innocence is slow and brutal. Yet, the desire and struggle to retain some of their initial virginity is fought for by the sacrificing member of the group. Isaac knows that the outcome of their actions will not be good. Today’s youth in The Third World, America, and England are facing anonymity. Governments will not acknowledge their plight. There are no jobs…. no means of acquiring independence through home ownership.... and a university education is far too expensive. The youth feel that their voices are quelled in favor of the elders. Mengestu captures the futility and the frustration of today’s youth in a novel about a similar, older generation. Is he warning us? I hope so.