Peter Orner’s The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo is a collection of vignettes loosely strung together like macaroni on yarn. It takes place in a boys’ primary school in Goas, a tiny outpost in Namibia’s desert, yet the childish setting belies the narrative’s nuanced artistry; each short chapter is titled by a character, a time of day, an activity, or even Goas itself, and varies in length, tone, and voice. There is something remarkably sophisticated and polished in the finished product—sparkling like a diamond necklace rather than a child’s art project.
The title refers to Mavala Shikongo, a beautiful revolutionary-cum-teacher whom the men revere and fear in equal measure. And as she deftly and gracefully navigates the treacherous sands in her high heels, she also inspires lust. Early in the book, she departs mysteriously only to return a month later with child in tow, a toddler that instigates gossip among her colleagues and vitriolic disdain from Miss Tuyeni (her sister) and the principal’s wife.
Larry Kaplanski (forever misnamed Kaplansk, the i severed like a gangrenous pinky), the American volunteer teacher and the story’s de facto narrator, is as smitten with Mavala’s boldness and defiance as any of the veteran teachers. But when Mavala returns in ignominy, he is quite willing to ogle her openly, dispelling both the myth of her grandeur and his own discretion. It seems that her graceless state is not conferred by her bastard child so much as by her prodigal return. “Even true heroes become no one at Goas.” Her ultimate, and ultimately unforgivable, sin is her inability to stay away.
Orner’s depiction of Mavala brings to mind Toni Morrison’s Sula: both are women living in the slim space between expectation and anticipation, between social propriety and personal freedom. Much of Orner’s novel takes place in these spaces, and like Morrison’s Sula, Mavala seems to expend as much energy courting disapproval as she does seeking her own happiness. Orner is skilled at balancing this tension and heightening its consequences by pairing and comparing Mavala—black, African, female—and Kaplanski—white, American, male—both of whom are outsiders and suspect by the establishment (if a provisional, derelict school can be considered establishment).
Insofar as there is a plot, it is Mavala’s and Larry’s changing relationship, sparked and extinguished and kindled again literally on the graves of the Boers. Despite Mavala and Larry’s status as outsiders, they are not equally disposed to their circumstances or environment. It is their differences, and the distance they instill, that stand out more and more as their intimacy grows.
But the true love story is Orner’s—and in turn, the reader’s—infatuation with the Namib desert. Orner’s descriptions are gorgeous, austere, and luxurious at once; for Orner the veld takes on an aspect of Petrarch’s lady—she is the object of his desire and his constant poetic conceit. And like Laura, the Namib desert is alluring yet treacherous, pervasive but unattainable. Orner’s talent is evident in this paradox.
Seasons at Goas, as much as you can call cold, hot, and more hot seasons, catapult into each other. Days too. Winter mornings bleed to summer afternoons. And memory is as much a heap of disorder as it is a liar . . . The spiraled ash of a spent mosquito coil. A book with a broken spine lying facedown. A row of tiny socks drying on the edge of a bucket.
The Namib is a sadistic lover: harsh, capricious—months of desiccated embraces are followed by torrential blows of rain—and inevitably insistent in its betrayal. The three rivers that converge nearby do not irrigate fields but instead flood and drown children and livestock, only to evaporate within hours. As Obadiah, a haggard historian, says, “Three hours of hard rain at Goas? Did gorging ever make a man starve slower?”
Goas—whose very wretchedness is strangely alluring—becomes the backdrop for exploring a myriad of issues: class, gender, nationality, and of course race, both in the microcosm of the school, and in the larger conflict of Namibian independence. One early chapter begins with an exchange of letters between a Boer farmer and the government, where the farmer attempts to exchange Goas for a more fertile—and hopefully more lucrative—plot of land, encouraging the government to annex Goas for the Otjimbingwe Native Reserve. But to no avail. Instead the devout Dutch Calvinist farmer strangely bequeaths land to the Catholic Church. Unable to corral sufficient lepers for a colony or make a go of a sheep farm, the diocese (in the wake of the 1967 Group Areas Act, which forced black school children from the towns) founds a school.
Teachers and students alike are reluctant to install themselves permanently at Goas, even if they’ve been there decades; to maintain a semblance of normalcy, they must believe their discomfort and deprivation is only temporary. Independence, stability, abundance, even—and maybe most importantly—green, rampant fecundity of the land is always imminent. With each passing season and regime, the promise of something different can be imagined. And yet, Goas’s mutability is its downfall—despite the fact that everything is always changing, nothing really changes. The colonial presence, whether it be German or Dutch or English, is pervasive (even after it’s been quashed) like the mosquitoes that drone furiously each summer’s night, after their predecessors have been exterminated that morning. Life is bleak, but Orner describes it beautifully.
Orner’s prose is both spare and eloquent, sometimes resonant with the luscious cadence of Psalms, other times swift and smooth, a stone skipping bank to bank across the surface of a river. There is a nameless old woman who sells rocks at a wooden table by the side of the road. “She sat at a place where the veld seemed to repeat itself, where there was no sense of the land passing, or even time . . . she sits there, lording over the common rocks she calls gems. That’s what her sign says: GEMS 4 SALE. She doesn’t shout, wave, or cajole. She lets the truth of the sign speak for itself.” One truth is the constant landscape. Another is the woman’s self-deception, the fantasy of plenty, of riches even, that beckons as insistently as the veld’s monotony and evokes the same exhausting image of the country’s sufferance. But another truth is that of Orner’s prose itself; it does not dissemble, its gems are real.
Orner’s humor comes cold and crisp like well water. He describes two young students practicing their English (a particularly antiquated Victorian strain) at a picnic table after English church one Wednesday. “They smoked pencils like pipes. They tipped imaginary hats. From their faces they both seemed to be in great pain. English was often associated with constipation.” The potbellied and provincial principal patrols the periphery of the narrative, providing unintentional humorous moments. His staff know the day of the week by the tie he wears (even in the early hours of the morning, as he stalks back from the toilet houses). Amidst chaos he insists on order and discipline, as if his personal rectitude alone could overcome the heat’s torpor and steady the shakiness of his country’s new government. His bureaucratic buffoonery is most ridiculous when Kaplanski speaks out against another white’s “binding legal right to drive straight across the soccer field.” But the principal asks “Why should he drive around when the document gives him the right?” Kaplanski says “To spare life and limb.” To which the principal responds “Did I not say the document was duly notarized?”
The second coming is not just of Mavala but of memory, too, corrupted and exalted by loss. In a letter from Obadiah, Goas’s haggard historian, that Larry receives back home in Cincinnati, Obadiah writes “One of these days expect a treatise on the practical uses of lamentation. I am preparing an anthology you may find interesting.” Orner’s novel is that anthology. It may be more poetic than practical, but by the book’s end it had instilled in me a small sorrow like a pebble in my shoe, a reminder that the heart has a practiced way of remembering loss.
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