Africa · Books · Memorable words

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

A beautiful first book by Dinaw Mengestu, about America through the eyes of an Ethiopian immigrant and his two African friends, a Zairean and a Kenyan…Their interactions and comments are so authentically African, I’m enjoying it immensely. It correlates the American experience by Africans, ties into details of their lives. The small prides, the meaningful accomplishments, the struggles. Peppered with connections back to their former lives, statements that are amusing and profound, like this one, where Sepha talks about Joseph the Zairean and his Kinshasa chess-playing days:

“Clusters, and in some cases, surrogate families of young men formed around the game. Some were illiterate and had spent years fighting from the bush; others, like Joseph, were born into affluent families who had paid for French and English tutors before losing everything to Mobutu and his corrupt, bloated government. They had a religious devotion to the game, a respect for its handful of rules and almost infinite variations born, as Joseph said, out of a shared sense of gratitude for having at least one space where their decisions mattered. “Nobody,” he said once, “understand chess like an African.”

Am not done with it, but here’s a lovely passage, about one of the sweet moments of the book, the main character, a shopkeeper named Sepha Stephanos befriends a twelve year old force of nature, named Naomi who just moved into the poor DC neighborhood with her intellectual mom, on a sabbatical from her teaching position. It’s really a detail, a funny slightly wild passage about almost nothing, but the writing is beautiful.

“When I finally rang the doorbell, Naomi answered. Her mother had tried to braid her hair into a row of plaits, but it had come out as a half-dozen uneven, lopsided braids that erupted into a tuft in the back. It gave Naomi an oddly menacing look that somehow seemed intended. She stood in the dorrway looking like a lunatic and stared at me as if I were the man responsible for all the world’s frustrated desires, a fool who accidentally gave bad directions to people on their honeymoons, contemptuous but good-natured.”

I think what I like most about it, is that because it is written by a real African, it rings true, for once, in small dignified and subtle ways. It’s all in the details. I’m so grateful for that I could tear up. I never find solace in the portrayal of Africa in the media, and especially the recent blockbuster movies, like “Constant Gardner” “Blood Diamond” or “Last King of Scotland.” Even when they are profound and incredibly well done (“Gardner”), or even superbly well acted and authentic (particularly Forest Whitaker in “Last King”) there is always that untruth, that compromise that takes it awyay from its potential, and put at the forefront a love story of whites to make it palatable for the audiences.

The subtlety of African life is always missing, and that is what this book has in great quantities. In its quiet, understated way, it is a sort of “Lives of Others” of Africans and something I’d been looking for, for a long time.

2 thoughts on “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

  1. “Nobody,” he said once, “understand chess like an African.”

    I guess I could google it myself, but are there any African grandmaster? All the great chess players these days seem to be Russian.

    because it is written by a real African, it rings true

    Have you read any of (Rhodesian-born) Alexander McCall Smith’s “Ladies’ Detective Agency” books? What did you think?

  2. I would be surprised if there were any African grandmasters…there aren’t really any African champions in any kind of competitive disciplines because society doesn’t have the infrastructure (except in the richer countries like South Africa) to support that kind of single minded pursuit in excellence of one discipline. People are usually too busy with life, but I think what he meant is that Africans get the concept of chess better than anyone because that’s what they’re faced with every day.

    Proabably more than this book, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and the works of Emmanuel Dongala, Congolese poet, are powerfully authentic.

    I absolutely LOVED the Ladies’ Detective Agency, and they were indeed very spot on, and completely pleasant to read, in the same way that you would enjoy all of Kazuo Ishigoro’s work because of the pace and the writing quality. There was definitely a European spin to the way he was seeing these very authentic moments and characters. Maybe in what he chose to write about, or focus on.

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