Back Bay Books,
May 2007, $13.99
A woman whirls in gray veils of the last rain anyone will see for months. A toddler is pulled behind his mother, skimming over sand like “an evil little water skier.” An entire town, upon hearing a radio broadcast, leaves its homes, cars, and businesses and sits as one in the dusty road. A piano burns to its stubborn ivory keys on a drunken desert night. A woman sits in the veldt with dying cows, reading to them from Genesis to give them hope. “‘And behold, there came up out of the river seven kine, fat-fleshed and well favored; and they fed in a meadow.’ (Kine, she explained to them, means you.)”
These are among the singular images—ironic, humorous, understatedly heartwrenching in their startling clarity—that unfold from flat pages and linger after the completion of Peter Orner’s first novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. Just reissued in paperback, this tale of American volunteer Larry Kaplanski’s time spent in a godforsaken place where “even the baboons feel sorry for us,” is told in a picaresque manner well suited to the 21st-century attention span. In chapters ranging from three pages to a single, muscular sentence, Goas, a school for farm boys in the middle of the drought-ridden South African veldt, shimmers and materializes before the eyes like a mirage.
Bard Fiction Prize winner Orner, who is currently on leave from San Francisco State University, spent part of the early 1990s in Namibia, where the novel is set. Nestled between Angola to the north, Botswana to the east, and South Africa on the Atlantic coast, Namibia consists of much of the former land of the much-documented bushmen, including a substantial chunk of the Kalahari Desert. Namibia’s economy relies mainly on mineral extraction and subsistence farming. After Mongolia, it is the least densely populated country on Earth.
Along with Larry, the lone volunteer at Goas, are other instructors who were forced there by circumstance or simply because they had no other place to go. These include the orator, Obadiah, brilliant and drunk (“All we ever do is make speeches. Don’t you even understand that? You think anybody talks to each other? Ever? Talks to each other?”); Theofilus, the black albino jack-of-all-trades at Goas, who diverted the entire school’s drinking water to try to save the cows (“It was such a brazen act of love, he wasn’t even called to task for it by either the principal or the priest”); the practical and taciturn Antoinette (“Love? You want to know where love went? Easy. Same place as all the water. Now enough. I have stomachs to satisfy”); and, of course, Mavala Shikongo, a beautiful, mysterious young woman who fought in The Struggle, the war of just a few years earlier between the natives and the South African Defense Force that casts a shadow over all of the tale’s inhabitants. (A line going around Goas asks, “How do you know Mavala Shikongo’s war stories are true?,” The answer: “Because she never tells any.”)
Although a strong, fine thread of narrative following Larry’s fascination with the enigmatic Mavala snakes through the novel, the life force of the book exists in the stories, lies, and observations used by those at Goas to populate the scorched and empty veldt. Even in this bleak place, a resilient wellspring of universally recognizable humanity asserts itself, made all the more luminous against the stark contrasts of the landscape.
Orner also wrote the acclaimed Esther Stories. His writing style is smooth and engaging, with an accomplished sense of ironic timing. He possesses the rare ability to craft irreverent, pithy last sentences that make The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo nearly impossible to put down, although natural stopping places occur everywhere. Despite this, at no point does the narrative seem jarring or disjointed. The short, revealing chapters align themselves like sepia-toned photographs in the mind, each capturing a unique angle of the same subject: the age-old search for meaning and fulfillment in an almost uninhabitable place.