It’s telling that Mengestu chooses to frame his brave, funny, and sad story under the auspices of a key line from Dante’s Inferno. In particular, the title comes from the closing lines of Dante’s Inferno, as Dante and Virgil emerge from their voyage through the 9 circles of hell on Easter morning. With a journey through purgatory and paradise still ahead, the travelers look up to the star-soaked heavens:
“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.”
It is this experience of capturing beauty following unspeakable evil and adversity that Mengestu likens to the immigrant experience for so many (Africans in the book’s case). In the case of the narrator Sepha and his friends, they have escaped the violence in their own country and arrived in America, “seeing the stars.” Only they soon discover that while their new life in the United States may not be hell, it will likely be much more like the penance of purgatory than that of paradiso. Sepha emphasizes the direction of this journey a la purgatory as he notes: “As it was, I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.” (41)
While Sepha shares some of the experience of living in and then fleeing Ethiopia at the time of Emperor Salassie, some of the book’s best lines and conversations come from his Congolese friend Joseph. As Joseph shares a childhood experience from when his village was “freed” by rebel forces, he notes that “we didn’t even know we were oppressed.” With wry humor he goes on to explain that “we gave the rebels all the money we had to thank them.” In pulling back the veil on the inner sanctum of immigrant conversations, Mengestu encourages readers not to take so much of the headlines spit out about conflict on the African continent at face value but to delve deeper and search for the nuance--for the human experience.
“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” is ultimately about the intersection of expectations, dreams, and reality for many immigrants in the United States. More often than not, Mengestu wants the reader to know, this intersection is a harsh one where dreams easily wither in the face of the drive to just exist between two worlds.
*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
See our 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 Reading Lists.
|Car connoisseur Salassie is deposed from power in a VW Beetle|
- “As it was, I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.” (41)
- “Nobody understands chess like an African.” Joseph from Congo shares this tidbit, noting that in a world of government repression, it’s the one area where their decisions mattered. (63)
- “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” Joseph’s favorite lines of poetry (from Dante’s Inferno) as he says only Africans can truly relate to the sense of being in hell with only occasional periods of relief. (100)
- “I am one of those people for whom nothing is left of their home country.” Sepha’s Uncle in a letter to President Carter. (124)
- “We have come this far, to find we have even further to go/The last traces of a permanent twilight have faded and/given way/To what we hope is nothing short of a permanent dawn.” Joseph trying to capture what it was like at the birth of Congolese independence. (169)
- “Let us stop. Let us begin again./Let us clean the blood from the rubber fields/And do what we promised to do.” Different independence lines from Joseph. (170)
- “Patrice./Are we ready?” (170) Joseph’s spares lines in his ‘Life of Congo’ poem.
- “All the best dictators are colonels.” (184) Joseph, Kenneth and Sepha during one of their rehashes of various coups across the continent.
- “We didn’t even know we were oppressed.” (220) Great line from Joseph that gets at the complexity of so much of the wars and rebellions across Africa. In this case Joseph is describing being violently ‘liberated’ by rebels. With wry humor he goes on to say that “we gave the rebels all the money we had to thank them.”
- Sepha notes the power of small gestures of sympathy at opportune times in a conversation with Naomi, Judith’s precocious daughter. (26)
- Remittances mentioned. In Sepha’s case, his family didn’t really need the money but it was kind of the price one paid for not enduring life back home. (41)
- In life, sometime you hold onto things that are cheap or meaningless with the hope that the meaning will emerge later. (50)
- Ethiopian emperor leaves power in beat up VW Beetle (92)
- Emperor buried under a toilet (94)
- At 16, Sepha didn’t yet believe in consequences...to the detriment of his father who was killed after Sepha passed out revolutionary flyers (126)
- Disappointment close to hatred (father couldn’t act as he was taken away by soldiers) (130)
- A handshake with Judith breaks Sepha’s heart. Sepha never feels himself worthy. (137)
- Author notes similarities between Addis and DC. (173)
- Immigrants and the idea of “going back home” is explored. Mengestu opines that the phrase denotes an understanding that what you return to can never be the same as what you left. (174)
- The power of his father’s absence frames everything in Sepha’s life. When his father died, so did Sepha’s life in Ethiopia (Absent father wound). (177)
- Immigrants can’t take Christmas off--they are expected to work in the 7-11s and mini-marts. (178)
- Someone is always on the run near you (194)
- Expectations of dead things is that they stay dead. That is, what happens when memories live on like a wound that will never heal. (209)
- We all want to shape our own destiny--we want to control what we can in our own limited spheres (211)
- The theme of an immigrant life is that idea of being stuck between two worlds. “A man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.” In between idea (228)
- Could just as easily wrote a review that centered on the triangle between Sepha, Judith and her daughter.
- Ethiopia: Enigma and Dilemma (article by Joe Guido)
- Mengistu Mariam (218)
- NPR: Dinaw Mengestu Captures Immigrant Life
- NEA Big Reads Summary
- Book Browse Interview with Mengestu
- 2011 Economist Interview with Mengestu
- 2010 New Yorker Interview
- From Addis Ababa to Paris, via Peoria: Dinaw Mengestu
- "An Honest Exit" short story in New Yorker
- "Returning to Ethiopia" non-fiction piece by Mengestu
- UCF interview with Mengestu
- "My Personal Greek Myth" by Mengestu
- NYT: What to Read Before Heading to Ethiopia
- Short Reddit with Mengestu
- "All Our Names" is the Great African Novel
- NPR Dinaw Mengestu Embraces The Vastness Of Love And War (includes podcast)