Why do love and war go so well together in novels? It isn't only because they're both naturally dramatic themes. Sometimes, in fact, each is so big and overwhelming that they can seem beyond the grasp of words. And so a writer who tries to show the struggle of two people with deep feelings for each other, "set against a backdrop of violence" (as a novel's flap copy might read), can just seem like he's overreaching. But Dinaw Mengestu uses love and war to powerfully explore a third, equally dramatic theme: identity.
Set after Ugandan independence, All Our Names is told in alternating points of view. It goes back and forth between the voice of a social worker in the Midwest named Helen, and her lover, who fled the protests, violence and confusion of Uganda, and who calls himself "Isaac," which is not the name he was born with, but one he has "borrowed." This book depicts a world in which people's names — along with their families and history — can be just another casualty of violence and poverty.
There's also a third figure who's central to the novel: Isaac's friend back in Africa, a charismatic organizer and protest leader. The relationship between the two men — and their need for closeness and self-disclosure — is the beating heart of this novel.
Most people want to be known — they want it to happen now, while they're alive, whether by close confidantes or whole communities; some people care about being remembered after they die. Early in the novel, Isaac's friend draws attention to them both on a university campus in Uganda. Isaac says, "When I suggested ... that we find a quieter, less obvious corner of the campus, he insisted he couldn't do it. 'We're becoming known,' he said, 'Why would we quit now?'"
But in the world of All Our Names, the African characters are caught in a constantly changing, illogical, deeply violent — and often hazily described and hazily experienced by the characters -- political power struggle, in which their selves can be subsumed. Our narrator's friend, an emerging leader, gives him an incomplete picture of what he actually knows is going on. And the reader isn't given all that many specifics either, though even without them this novel looks deeply at the life cycle of African liberation armies. Mengestu shows us how leaders improvise and rise up, then lose their energy and fall away, along with their ideals, and their followers.
When any writer takes on the subject of war, the characters are bound to appear small in relation to their circumstance. But often a writer grapples with that by making their personal history matter hugely, and giving weight to who they are and where they came from. Mengestu lets Helen and Isaac float through time and events, while in Africa Isaac's friend tries hard to drive the unpredictable political narrative unfolding around him. While he and Isaac are in some important senses "unknown" to each other, they have an intensity that transcends that absence of knowledge.
There's something to be said for being unknown. Isaac says, as he and his friend travel together on their odyssey, "During the three days I lived in that enclave, I learned there was pleasure to be found in anonymity." And at one point early on his friend remarks to him, "You're lucky. Right now you have nothing to worry about. No one has any idea who you are."
This "luck" — if that's what it is — continues when Isaac leaves Africa and moves to Laurel, a town in the Midwest, where he and Helen become involved. At work she is assigned his case, and almost immediately begins an affair with him, but she doesn't even know exactly why he's here in the States, or who he was in the past. One day she plans to take him to a diner in town that "was never officially segregated, but I couldn't remember anyone who wasn't white eating there, either." Anticipating trouble, before she leaves to pick him up, she "wrote down on a piece of paper, in case I forgot it later: 'We have every right to be here.'" But the people at the diner don't agree. At first the waitress is sent over to ask if maybe they would like to get their food to go. And then when Isaac says, "No. We would rather eat it here," she returns with their orders: Helen's on the standard cream-colored plates, and Isaac's on a "stack of thin paper plates barely large enough to hold the food." Which is a way of stripping him yet again of his identity.
While the Africa sections concern the ad-hoc nature of liberation armies, the numbing effects of violence, and the abiding loyalty and sometimes erotic love between comrades, and the midwest sections are about a tentative love affair between virtual strangers and the pervasiveness of racism, they're bound not just by their shared half-hidden main character, or by the ghostly presence of the friend he left behind in Africa. There's something else that pulls the book together and makes it a subtle masterpiece. Maybe it has to do with futility. We see, in this novel, the way people become radicalized and get worked up for a cause; and the way at other times, people get worked up for love. Both can be directionless and, in the end, impossible.
While it's true that some writers, when taking on love and war, find the task too big, or only succeed in one but not the other, Mengestu tracks both themes with authority and feeling. His book is a powerful look at who we aren't, and even, sometimes, who we are.