The father in Dinaw Mengestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air (Riverhead, 2010), fled from Ethiopia to Sudan, stowed away on a cargo ship to Europe and eventually found his way to Peoria, Illinois. There he was eventually joined by the girl he had married in Addis Ababa but hadn’t seen for three years. Not surprisingly, the two were strangers to one another. The narrator is their son, Jonas Woldemariam, who tells his father and mother’s story along with his own.
The novel opens with Yosef and Mariam. The parents’ story is presented in small segments through the book as a slow-motion time capsule, the essence of their troubled marriage distilled by their son into a single day before he, Jonas, was born, before his father had yet been told of his wife’s pregnancy, a day on which Yosef and Mariam left their Peoria home on what was intended to be a vacation trip to Nashville.
Chapter II opens with a flash-forward:
Six months before I left my wife, Angela, and began retracing my parents’ route through the Midwest, my father passed away in the boardinghouse he had been living in for ten years.
In their respective childhoods, Angela’s father disappeared from her life without explanation, and Jonas sought to escape his father’s violence by making himself invisible, so it is not surprising that this young couple finds marriage difficult. On their first social occasion together, they discover a delight in playful invention and, over time, invent a shared history for themselves, but in the end it is the creative, invented stories Jonas tells her that erode Angela’s trust in him. By constantly retreating from her and from truth, he pushes her away.
Jonas’s most elaborate invention, however, is not one he creates for or with Angela but the one he tells his high school English students. Setting aside course work, he starts in one day and continues for several days, spinning out a fictional history for his father in the same way he had formerly elaborated on the asylum requests of clients in the immigration center where he and Angela met. In this way, the author lets the narrator give his father two pasts, one day of an unhappy and violent marriage, and months of fear and poverty as a displaced person.
Is the single day less invented than the saga? The way I read the book, the imagined detail Jonas gives to the slowly unrolling day in his parents’ life allows him to see his distant mother as an individual, with her own hopes and dreams, fears, disappointments and moments of happiness, while the twists and turns of the saga he invents for his angry father does the same for that parent. The truth is that Jonas received little in the way of concern or affection from either parent and had no siblings or friends to cushion his childhood loneliness. A lonely child, he naturally carries his defenses with him into adulthood.
...I had always suspected that at some point in my life, while still living with my parents and their daily battles, I had gone numb as a tactical strategy, perhaps at exactly that moment when we’re supposed to be waking up to the world and stepping into our own.
All that said, I do not call this (as one reviewer did) a tragic story. True, it lacks a “happy ending,” but the last page is anything but a tragedy, as I read it. The following passage is not the last in the book, nor part of the last chapter (I’ll not spoil the ending for you), but conveys how much Jonas has experienced and learned in his three-year marriage:
There were vast swaths of my life that I knew if I looked at closely I would come to regret, and I was certain that soon enough I was going to find the time to do that. I’d regret and wonder, and then do so again until all known ground was covered. This was certainly part of the cost that had to be paid.
One of the specific things he learned was the importance of seeing:
I had walked for a long time with my eyes half closed. ...[I]f one was really looking, which was what I felt I was finally doing—looking, with neither judgment nor fear at what was around me—then that was enough to say you had truly been there.
To wake up to life, to begin to see—surely these are enormous gains for the fictional narrator, as they would be for any human being.
Among the many new novels dealing with the immigrant experience (there are many good memoirs, too), How to Read the Air stands out for me as a unique fictional treatment of the social and emotional isolation felt by many immigrants and their American-born children. The subtlety of the writing allows the reader’s involvement in the story to build organically and almost imperceptibly until the last surprising page.