Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

A Novel

by Dinaw Mengestu

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu X
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 240 pages

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  • The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (historically known as Abyssinia) is located in east Africa, on the "Horn of Africa" (map). Once an important trade route due to its location on the Red Sea, it has been landlocked since 1993 when the province of Eritrea gained independence. It is the oldest independent country in Africa and is unique in that it was never colonized; the second-oldest official Christian nation (after Armenia) and one of the 51 original members of the United Nations. Its capital is Addis Ababa. With a landmass a little over twice the size of Texas and a population of about 75 million, it is the third most populous country in Africa (after Nigeria and Egypt) and the 16th most populous in the world.

    Emperor Haile Salassie ruled from 1930 to 1974, during which time he undertook a program of rapid modernization; but his reign ended abruptly in 1974 when a pro-Soviet military junta, the Derg, deposed him and established a one-party communist state. For more about Ethiopia read BookBrowse's review of There Is No Me Without You.

  • The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is set in Logan Circle, DC during a period of rapid gentrification. Mengestu knew the area because his family moved from suburban Chicago to Georgetown when he was 9 (his father had left a management job at Caterpillar, Inc in Peoria to launch his own messenger service)and he had friends in Logan Circle, where he would "spend a lot of time sitting on the stoops . . . because we were young and poor and didn't have anything else to do." Visit the official Logan Circle website for more about this historic area.

  • Judith is particularly fond of quoting from Tocqueville's Democracy in America, that describes the Frenchman's journey through America in 1831-32. For more about the journey and the full text of the book visit tocqueville.org.

  • The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is taken from one of the last lines of Dante's Inferno (canto 34). Inferno is the first of three parts that in total form The Divine Comedy.

    The Guide and I into that hidden road
    Now entered, to return to the bright world;
    And without care of having any rest.

    We mounted up, he first and I the second,
    Till I beheld through a round aperture
    Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;

    Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.

    Mengestu explains his choice of title as follows: "The beautiful things are not named or described, and won't be until Dante finally reaches heaven. And yet of course he can see a hint of what that beauty is. He knows it's there even if he has not attained it. Joseph, one of the novel's central characters, latches on to that idea of a visible but not yet attained heaven as a metaphor for his understanding of Africa."

  • The story of Sepha's father is based on Shibrew Stephanos, Mengestu's father's older brother, who was taken from his law office during the government's Red Terror campaign and held in a military barracks in Addis Ababa for a week or so, at which point Mengestu's father got a call to come and get the body. Mengestu says, "My father would speak about his brother every once in a while, just really quietly ... He would whisper his name while he was driving. Sometimes he would just suddenly shake his head in sadness."

This article was originally published in March 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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