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The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner

Beauty On Every Page

Peter Orner, from a Jewish family in Chicago, has written a novel about Namibia. And it's good -- so very good. Let me explain: too often, novels by American writers set in foreign countries either romanticize them or misunderstand those countries completely, or both. In these kind of works, the narrative feels off. Something is wrong, even if it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is.

But Orner's novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, reads flawlessly. He has a masterful ear for the regional vocabulary of Goas, where the story is set, and his characters -- and there are many -- are alive and engaging. Indeed, the novel is so good that it's hard to believe that this is his debut.

Much like Esther Stories, Orner's collection of short stories in which short-shorts comprised an extended narrative in the second half of the book, Mavala Shikongo is written in 154 short chapters, the longest being six pages, but most being no longer than a page or two.

Orner did live in Namibia for a time (which happens to be during the period that Mavala Shikongo is set), and his novel is clearly informed by his experiences. Larry Kaplanski, an American from Cincinnati, narrates, though he is more of a loving chronicler than anything else.

Goas is a dry place, consisting mainly of a church and school near two rivers that run only occasionally and a third that has never run as long as anyone remembers. The residents spend much of their time longing: for water, for attention, for new blood. Mavala Shikongo, a veteran of the independence war, is the only unmarried female, and all the teachers at the Goas school lust after her, quietly.

The heart of the story is Kaplanski's relationship with Mavala. Kaplanski -- called Kaplansk in Goas -- falls in love with her but it is difficult to know exactly how she feels about him. They sleep together on a hill above the school during siesta, but Mavala doesn't give away whether Kaplanski does anything more than assuage a need.

But for Kaplanski, his love of Mavala transcends beyond this, to a love of the place where they've been stuck. He hates it, and there's nothing to do, but somehow the words that he lays forth are fond.

I have only two small criticisms of Mavala Shikongo. First, Orner does not locate the narrator at the beginning of the story, and for a long time it is difficult to know who, exactly, is telling the story. Is it Kaplanski? Another teacher at the school? A Dostoevskian narrator, never named but who speaks in the first person from time to time?

The second isn't so much of a criticism as it is a fear. Orner's work, whether his short stories or this novel, sometimes reads more as poetry than as prose. That is, you have to re-read to understand what exactly it is that you read the first time. This makes reading Orner's work different from reading most other writers', and while I count this positively, others may not.

That would be a terrible thing, because the work is unquestionably beautiful. In a chapter entitled “Fences,” Kaplanski describes the fences of Goas as “mostly patchworks made up of hubcaps, sheet metal, plywood, car parts, bedsprings, hammered barrel lids, plastic crates, bricks, goatskins, crushed cans, assorted broken furniture, and in spite of Theofilus's constant repairs, they didn't do much but lean away from the wind. . . . Our saddest fences, though, were the ones that didn't even try. Those sections of fence line where the land dipped into dry tributaries and the fence couldn't follow suit were called “flying fences,” the most useless man-made things in the universe. A bit of cordoned-off void, winging across nothing, the only true mascot of Goas.”

Not everything in Goas is sad. All the writing, however, is beautiful. Indeed, more than anything else, Mavala Shikongo is a book you can pick up, open a page by chance, and find something wonderful.

I believe that great books are those that take you away immediately, with their vibrancy, their potency. They are the books where you know what will happen next, yet you continue to read. The story, in these, is more important than the payoff.

By this standard, Mavala Shikongo is a great book.

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner
April 24, 2006
Little, Brown
Hardcover, $23.95
ISBN: 0316735809
320 pages