Photo by kiwikeith used under a Creative Commons license.
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (Little, Brown, 2006).
Larry Kaplanski, late of Cincinnati, is teaching at a Catholic school in Goas, Namibia, an invented place in rural, north central Namibia. (One writer suggests the school is below the Erongos Mountains, near the Kuiseb River, and says Orner’s Goas is a highly abstracted location, which may disturb those who know Namibia.) Kaplansk, as becomes known, is perhaps the central character, but he is surrounded by a cast of fully realized colleagues, including Obadiah and Antoinette, Vilho, Festus, Dikeledi, Auntie Wilhelmina, and, notably, Makala Shikongo, a kindergarten teacher and a veteran of Namibia’s war for indepedence who disappears weeks into the school year and later returns, unexpectedly, with an infant son. Like everyone else, Kaplansk is infatuated with her; unlike everyone else, he finds herself in a relationship on the sly, two marginalized teachers catching time at the edges of a very small community. While the relationship between Kaplansk and Shikongo drives the story, such as it is, there is so much more going on in this novel. One of the best books I have read in a while.
Here is a brief bio of Orner. Blackbird has some excerpts. Orner’s site has one too. Brien Michael (The Quarterly Conversation) writes that the true love story here is Orner’s infatuation with the Namib desert. Sheridan Griswold (Mmegi) writes that it is a work on Africa that belongs to Africa, even though Orner is a foreigner. Mark Schone (The New York Times) says Orner hits the right notes and no others. Steve Almond (The Boston Globe) calls it the genuine article, a miraculous feat of empathy, a book of astonishing beauty. Stephen Elliott (The Huffington Post) says the loneliness of the veld pervades every page. Mario Bruzzone (SFStation) says Orner neither misunderstands nor romanticizes Namibia. Marshal Zeringue (Campaign for the American Reader) has the story behind page 69. Zimbabwean Alexandra Fuller (Salon) says it’s required reading, the standard by which writing about southern Africa should be set. Rick Kleffel (I think) (The Agony Column) says it’s a cunningly written deadly addiction. Sean Carman (Maud Newton) writes that Orner captures rural Africa. Here are more reviews from Michaux Dempster (Blackbird); Sandy Amazeen (Monsters&Critics); Eric Siegmund; McKay McFadden (Boldtype) (scroll down); TheWordyGecko; Jack Goodstein; Tracy Hodnett; and Bri Johnson (Chronogram); You can watch this review, or listen to Marrie Stone interview Orner. It didn’t make it out of the first round in the 2007 Tournament of Books, but Di Mackey sees lots of raves. Orner wrote about Namibia two years ago when a visit by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt made the news. Apropos of African schools, Michelle Richmond recommends this essay by Binyavanga Wainaina in Bidoun. The otherwordly Namibia described in this New York Times travel article seems to be a different country from the one Kaplansk teaches in.