Those lines come from Dante’s Inferno. A part of those the Ethiopian writer, Dinaw Mengestu, uses to compose a beautiful novel there is about forced migrations of a group or groups of humanity from one end of the globe to the other. “The beautiful things that heaven bears” therefore becomes the title of that novel.
It is a good novel in that it far surpasses the sentiments of Diaspora in third world literature, albeit post and neo-colonial literature. The setting then becomes the force of reckoning in modern day fiction of any genre, any class or description. Washington, DC, then, of all places, becomes the setting of this novel. And it is well that it should be, for out of such experiences one never knows, the next president of the United States could be a Papua New Guinean.
Three Africans, forced out of their respective countries through revolutions and dictatorships, find themselves in Washington, DC, trying to make do with whatever it is that is left of their lives. Yet each day to them is like a journey undertaken by the persona in Dante’s classic, Inferno – which is tantamount to saying, yeah, I been there, but look again in the other direction and tell me what you see.
Of course, the allusion there should not imply that America is such a beautiful place to be. As one of the characters of the novel says, “This country is like a little bastard child. You can’t be angry when it doesn’t give you what you want.” Thenceforth, their new country is viewed as a place of choicelessness where “you have to praise it when it comes close, otherwise it’ll turn around and bite you in the ass.”
So the three Africans, Kenneth the Kenyan, Sepha Stephanos the Ethiopian (and the protagonist/narrator of the novel) and Joseph or Joe the Congo, set about rebuilding their lives as “children of the revolution” involuntarily marooned in America. They have to make America their home and that is what they all set out to do.
Kenneth becomes a successful used car dealer, Joe the Congo retains his old job as a waiter at a posh hotel spot where he is audience to the inner workings of government through several state dinners or lunches followed by leftover meals and drinks to take home at the end of day, and Sepha Stephanos decides to set up a grocery store at a convenient central spot known as General Logan’s Circle. It is at this grocery shop that the three meet some evenings to share nostalgic sentiments about their sad continent, strewn with decades of sporadic dictatorship regimes that seem endless and chaotic.
Life goes on as most good novels can allow, the narrative becoming all the more grandeur in description and sentiment until what we a looking at is a masterpiece so well planned and executed. Not only is Dante mentioned in this novel but other names as well such as Dostoyevsky, Emerson, Tocqueville and Dickinson.
In addition to these three Africans there are characters such as Judith and her biracial daughter Naomi who move in to Stephanos’ neighbourhood to claim a rundown mansion and turn into a Great Gatsby looking castle. It is Judith and her daughter Naomi who bring a lot of changes to an otherwise dismal middle-aged life of Stephanos. A kind of relationship develops there and for a moment we tend to see some promises of enlightenment, intellectual or otherwise, for all parties concerned. But it is a good kind of relationship eventually. Stephanos in teaching Naomi to read books, for example, surprises himself in getting into the inner psychology of The Brothers Karamazov deliberately borrowed from a local library by the eleven year-old Naomi. The mother, herself the estranged wife of a black professor, shrugs the deal off like a wounded matador and that sort of strengthens the relationship a bit.
When the other two Africans learn of their continental brother’s involvement with a white woman and her daughter all sorts of racial politics spring up. But our protagonist seems to keep everything under his control due to his background of a good middle class New England education (for he did migrate to America when he was sixteen). Towards the end of the novel we do learn one thing: that this is what good contemporary works of fiction should be.
The climax of the novel comes at around Christmas time. The festive mood is captivating. Everyone wants to buy presents for everyone and everyone else. Stephanos decides to close shop early and sends Naomi away from their afternoon reading lessons with a note to Judith saying he has a few surprises for them by dinner time.
So off goes our protagonist on a Christmas shopping spree with whatever was earned that day from the till. His list included a journal for Naomi, a perfume for his mum including a shirt for his little brother in Ethiopia and a precious rare old hardcover copy of Dickinson’s poetry for Judith. By fall of evening when he returns to start wrapping up the gifts Stephanos finds a note on the porch which reads: “Dear Sepha, Thank you for the letter. It was very nice of you to think of us. Unfortunately, Naomi and I are leaving early this evening to spend the holiday with my sister and her family in Connecticut. I’m sure we will see you again shortly after we return. I hope you have a merry Christmas. I’m sorry. Best, JM.”
Rather than let his heart sink, Stephanos sets about measuring and cutting the gift wrapping paper for the journal, shirt, rare book and perfume. Then there’s the problem of getting the measurements right, or wrong, some sizes too big, others too small, goodness me, this wouldn’t make a good sight for Kenneth and Joseph the Congo, eh? In the end our protagonist gives up, but not without some moment of consolation, at least. A prostitute drops by and gets shooed away with the perfume, despite her complaints that perfumes give her a headache. “That’s okay. Just give it to someone you know.” The shirt (brother’s gift) and Emily Dickinson (now mum’s gift) finally reach their destination in Ethiopia, to which response mum simply sighs of that famous existential New England poetry: “Betam asazinya. It is sad. But it’s wonderful at the same time.”
This article has been specially written for those who might not have had a good Christmas and New Year break due to, like in Port Moresby for example, the cruel weather which denied a lot of us a good afternoon barbeque out in the sun with family and friends. It is also dedicated to those who are anxious to put everything else behind them and move on. The novel is deep. “But it’s wonderful at the same time.”