“How is America today, Stephanos?” Joseph asks me.
“He hates it,” Kenneth says.
“That’s because he doesn’t understand it’….’I’ve told you,’ he says. ‘This country is like a bastard child. You can’t be angry when it doesn’t give you what you want.“
After leaving Ethiopia seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos lives in the United States where he owns a small, low-profit grocery. This business and his two African immigrant friends, Joseph and Kenneth, as well as the Washington neighborhood where they live represent his universe, an intermediate space between Ethiopia and a New World which he does not really have access to.
The monotonous, nostalgic rhythm of their lives is disrupted when a young white woman, Judith, moves into their neighbourhood with her mixed-race daughter, Naomi. The friendship between Sepha and Judith slowly grows into love, but it also reminds Sepha of his longing for home and Judith of her past and of the space Naomi’s father occupies in her heart.
Through Sepha and his friends, the narrator depicts a world between other worlds, a world of those who do not know where they belong and what landmarks they have, if any. Sepha’s nostalgia is also the result of an identity dilemma: who is he, an Ethiopian man or an American immigrant, trying to struggle through the maze of his adoptive country? Where does he belong, in Ethiopia or in America, a place he knows little of despite his seventeen years there?
The quest for identity is a classical theme of modern literature, but is dealt with in a particular and original way in Mangestu’s début novel: identity becomes a blurred concept, difficult to grasp, to define and, most of all, to bear. Sepha and his friends do their best to keep a homey atmosphere and way of life in Sepha’s “Little Ethiopia” apartment, but their reason for doing so is precisely because they feel out of place, out of time and almost out of culture.
And yet, despite the melancholic tone and the haunting longing for a lost home, despite aching love and disappointments, Sepha never forgets to dream and, from time to time, to catch a glimpse of the world above his daily worries and struggles; the very title of the novel, taken from Dante’s Inferno (Divine Comedy), sums up his calm optimism and hope since “Through a round aperture I saw appear/ Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,/ Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.”
Review by Ioana Danaila
Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.