Exile on P Street

Reviewed by Christopher Byrd
Sunday, March 11, 2007


By Dinaw Mengestu

Riverhead. 228 pp. $22.95

One of the glories of the literature of exile is the sharp outlines a writer can bring to the contours of his adoptive society. For readers who were born in the writer's host country, such literature can uncover things that might otherwise be obscured by familiarity. Dinaw Mengestu's praiseworthy first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, draws upon this principle. Take, for example, this wide-eyed reflection by Sepha Stephanos, the Ethiopian émigré who narrates the story, on riding the Washington Metro: "The red-line train bound for the suburbs of Maryland is delayed. The trains of this city continue to marvel me, regardless of how long I live here. It's not just their size, but their order, the sense you get when riding them that a higher, regulatory power is in firm control, even if you yourself are not." Most native Metro users probably wouldn't greet a delay with such transcendental musings.

But Stephanos lacks an outlet -- aside from his friends -- to channel his thoughts. The novel underscores this element by contrasting his plight with that of the 19th-century writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who is a favorite author of a character in the novel. Unlike the blue-blooded Frenchman who returned to his homeland and was celebrated for his insights into American life, the struggling Stephanos seems unlikely to return to his native country or win admiration for his perspicacity.

As a teenager, Stephanos fled Ethiopia to escape fallout from the military coup that ousted Haile Selassie in 1974 and thrust the Dergue -- a junta that ruled the country until 1987 -- into power. Stephanos's father -- a prosperous lawyer in Ethiopia's capital -- attracted the ire of a government determined to snuff out all so-called counter- revolutionaries. After witnessing his father's brutal treatment at the hands of the Dergue's henchmen, Stephanos acceded to his mother's wishes and fled Ethiopia. Eventually, he made his way to Washington.

Mengestu's tightly written novel largely unfolds in alternating chapters of past and present. The story is structured around a period of unrest in Logan Circle when gentrification led to evictions. For Stephanos, the influx of moneyed white people into the predominantly black neighborhood where he resides and runs a grocery store is a welcome event. He hopes that his business might improve along with the neighborhood and that his loneliness might be alleviated by a white academic and her biracial child, whom he befriends.

Unfortunately, vandalism aimed at Logan Circle's new residents prompts the Tocqueville-loving scholar, with whom Stephanos is enamored, to leave the neighborhood. And so, while Stephanos mulls over the events that vaporized his hopes for a more fulfilling life, he finds himself in a self-reflective purgatory, searching for a new raison d'être. Indeed, the title of the novel comes from the last lines of Dante's Inferno, where the poet, emerging from hell, is granted a glimpse of heaven before he makes his way into purgatory.

Apart from its lean sentences, which very rarely overreach, Mengestu's novel benefits from his plausible depiction of characters caught on the seams between two worlds -- rich/poor, black/white, citizen/foreigner. This lends an urgency to their ruminations that believably cleanses their conversation of small talk. In other words, the big ideas of Stephanos and his two African friends about racial politics in America, the necessary accouterments for success, and why colonels make for better dictators than generals don't come off as stilted but as natural byproducts of their exiled condition.

With its well-observed characters and brisk narrative pacing, greatly benefited by the characters' tension-laced wit, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is an assured literary debut by a writer worth watching.

Christopher Byrd is a writer who lives in New York.

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