How To Read The Air is not a great novel, but it is a good one. The summary provided on the back cover and above is as misleading as it is incomplete. While the story features two road trips, identical in itinerary and divergent in purpose, they merely serve as an awkward framework on which to hang Mengestu's theme. Similar to the journeys, the characters go backward as much as they go forward in their lives and no destination is ever reached.
Jonas, the American born son of Ethiopian immigrants, is as lost in America as his parents were. He is seeking his identity and a center for his life. In the process of getting out of Ethiopia and to America, Jonas's father lost so much of his personality that his only means of interacting with wife and son was through violence. Jonas learned to "read the air" for signs of disturbance until life became an exercise in not existing. From his mother he learned to avoid, to lie and to look for any opportunity to make an escape.
Interweaving present and past, the story meanders through the lives of Yosef the father, Mariam the mother and Jonas the son: Yosef's harrowing escape from 1970s war torn Ethiopia and long journey to Peoria, Illinois; Mariam's three year wait in Ethiopia before an unsuccessful reunion with her husband; Jonas's tortured childhood, education, employment and unhappy marriage in New York City. I am accustomed to this approach to storytelling but Mengestu bothered me by revealing how things were going to turn out usually fifty or so pages before he showed it happening. The swirls of past and present induced a sort of vertigo and the heavy undertow of loss and grief threatened to drown me at several points.
In the end, though, I was soothed by the beautiful writing; prose that has been polished to a luster, characters who are unique without a whiff of stereotype, and emotion so seamlessly melded into the story that it feels true to life. Though Mengestu may have attempted too much in terms of the social, political and psychological implications of immigration from destroyed countries and the dubious benefits of finding asylum in so-called functioning countries, he manages to integrate these heavy themes into an aesthetic whole. Now and then a badly needed dose of humor refreshed me and carried me through to another dreary, though elegiac passage.
Reading this novel is a lengthy exercise in keeping going. Learning these characters' stories is a relief as the last bits are revealed and Jonas manages to find at least a measure of the identity and center he was seeking, but I do not agree with reviewers who found hope in this novel. One of the first jobs Jonas took in New York was at an immigration center. His duties included editing the stories of asylum seekers to give them greater impact on the immigration officers who would decide their fates. He summarizes a somewhat generic statement as:
"The village, city, town, country I came from, was born in, lived in for forty-five, sixty years was taken over, occupied, bombed, burned, destroyed, slaughtered, and I, my family, my sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparents were arrested, shot, raped, detained, forced to say, tortured to say, threatened if we did not say that we would vote, not vote, believed in or did not believe, supported or denounced the government or movement or religion of X. We, I, can't, won't, will never be able to go back."
Not much hope there and not something that a father, mother, family, child can recover from in just a generation. But Dinaw Mengestu has drawn the best road map he could imagine should someone need to recover from that horrendous degree of displacement, and for his efforts I commend him.
This review is from the October 20, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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