Peter Orner’s dream of Africa: a reaction by Sean Carman

Below, Sean Carman, a regular contributor, writes about Peter Orner’s The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo.
 

Peter Orner has said, “Namibia got under my skin, way under my skin, and I carried memories of the place around with me for years until the desert farm where I lived (itself a strange thing) became more mythical than actual. I couldn’t shake those days, and so I had to try and write about them.”

Sure enough, The Second Coming of Mavala Shinkongo, the first novel Orner has drawn from his experience as a volunteer teacher in Namibia, feels like a half-remembered, half-imagined dream. Its brief paragraphs (many less than a page long) and mythic style don’t build a sustained narrative but a succession of poetic interludes, driven by images and sentiment more than conflict and suspense. Orner’s novel might even be labeled a collection of prose poems.

Orner’s protagonist Larry Kaplanski is an Ohio native volunteering as a teacher at a remote boys’ school in a Namibian town called Goas. The novel is Kaplanski’s memoir of the experience. It opens with Kaplanski’s arrival, and seems to cover, in its flash installments, Kaplanski’s year abroad.

A collection of memorable characters shares the living quarters attached to the school, and Orner sketches each in spare and vivid strokes. They interrupt each other in sleep (the walls are too thin), survive a brief drought, and tell stories about each other and their shared history, making themselves, in Kaplanski’s retelling, into small legends.

Orner knows his subject. So much of what he writes feels like a first-hand report of Namibian life. There are many achievements in his small chapters, but perhaps his greatest is capturing so well the rugged beauty and hardship of rural Africa. It really feels like we have signed up for the Peace Corps, to live in Namibia and teach at this school.

The star of the book is not Kaplanski, but Mavala Shinkongo, a former revolutionary soldier who can clean and strip down a Kalashnikov and never says more than any situation requires. She and Kaplanski become lovers in what feels like more of an affair of convenience than a meeting of kindred spirits. Orner describes their relationship with a light touch. It’s worth noting how difficult this is to do — to make such a cross-cultural love affair so credible on the page — and Orner does it in expert fashion.

Orner’s writing is dreamlike throughout. He jumps quickly out of scene and into summary, a technique that keeps the ground moving beneath the reader’s feet. As with poetry, the details are sparse and you often have to read between the lines to see the action. The story also rises and falls within each chapter, gathering and releasing itself like the sighs of someone half-asleep.

Orner also tends to mythologize Kaplanski’s experience, which keeps everything — the town of Goas, Mavala and the other locals — at something of a distance. Orner’s narrative voice is like a scrim that softens a gorgeous scene but still lets a few sharp details poke through. It all works thanks to Orner’s lyrical prose.

But while the Second Coming reads like a beautiful dream, it rises to an emotional and moving conclusion. Like the film Baghdad Cafe, it is, in the end, a touching elegy for an out-of-the-way place and its outcast characters, a love song of sadness and loss.


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