Gabon. He says it as if it were a crime I was guilty of.
What about it? I tell him, I hear its a fine country. Good people. Never been there myself, though.
He turns back to the map and whispers, Fuck you.
Come on. I thought you were an engineer, Joseph taunts him. Whatever happened to precision? He stands up and puts his large fat arm over Kenneths narrow shoulders. With his other hand he draws a circle around the center of Africa. He finds his spot and taps it twice.
Central African Republic, he says. When was it?
He scratches his chin thoughtfully, like the intellectual he always thought he was going to become, and has never stopped wanting to be.
Nineteen sixty-four? No. Nineteen sixty-five.
Nineteen sixty-six, I tell him.
But not close enough.
So far weve named more than thirty different coups in Africa. Its become a game with us. Name a dictator and then guess the year and country. Weve been playing the game for over a year now. Weve expanded our playing field to include failed coups, rebellions, minor insurrections, guerrilla leaders, and the acronyms of as many rebel groups as we can findthe SPLA, TPLF, LRA, UNITAanyone who has picked up a gun in the name of revolution. No matter how many we name, there are always more, the names, dates, and years multiplying as fast as we can memorize them so that at times we wonder, half-jokingly, if perhaps we ourselves arent somewhat responsible.
When we stop having coups, we can stop playing, Joseph said once. It was the third or fourth time we had played, and we were guessing how long we could keep it up.
I should have known that, Kenneth says. Bukassa has always been one of my favorites.
We all have favorites. Bukassa. Amin. Mobutu. We love the ones known for their absurd declarations and comical per for mances, the dictators who marry forty women and have twice as many children, who sit on golden thrones shaped like eagles, declare themselves minor gods, and are surrounded by rumors of incest, cannibalism, sorcery, and magic.
He was an emperor, Joseph says. Just like your Haile Selassie, Stephanos.
He didnt last as long, though, I remind him.
Thats because no one gave him a chance. Poor Bukassa. Emperor Bukassa. Minister of Defense, Education, Sports, Health, War, Housing, Land, Wildlife, Foreign Affairs, His Royal Majesty, King of the Sovereign World, and Not Quite But Almost the Lion of Judah Bukassa.
He was a cannibal, wasnt he? Kenneth asks Joseph.
According to the French, yes. But who can believe the French? Just look at Sierra Leone, Senegal. Liars, all of them.
The French or the Africans?
What difference does it make?
We spend the next two hours alternating between shots and slowly sipped glasses of Kenneths scotch. Inevitably, predictably, our conversations find their way home.
Our memories, Joseph says, are like a river cut off from the ocean. With time they will slowly dry out in the sun, and so we drink and drink and drink and we can never have our fill.
Why do you always talk like that? Kenneth demands.
Because it is true. And that is the only way to describe it. If you have something different to say, then say it.
Kenneth leans his chair back against the wall. Hes drunk and on the verge of falling.
I will say it, he says.
He pours the last few drops of scotch into his cup and sticks his tongue out to catch them.
Excerpted from The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu © 2007 by Dinaw Mengestu. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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