2006.06.30: June 30, 2006: Headlines: COS - Namibia: Writing - Namibia: San Francisco Chronicle: Namibia RPCV Peter Orner writes "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo"

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Namibia: Peace Corps Namibia : The Peace Corps in Namibia: 2006.06.30: June 30, 2006: Headlines: COS - Namibia: Writing - Namibia: San Francisco Chronicle: Namibia RPCV Peter Orner writes "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo"

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Namibia RPCV Peter Orner writes "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo"

Namibia RPCV Peter Orner writes The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

Our guide to this world is Larry Karplanski, a Jewish man from Cincinnati who has decided, as Namibia gained independence, that he would lend a helping hand by teaching the young in a hamlet called Goas. Upon arriving at the village school far out in the veld, Larry is greeted by a gaggle of children and a cow, which gazes at him "in that eerie, death-announcing way cows have of looking right through you." In spite of the war's proximity, things are pretty sleepy. Drawing from the author's own experience teaching in Namibia in 1991, the novel sketches Goas and its characters with a lyric specificity. The action proceeds in 154 exquisite prose-poem-like chapters.

Namibia RPCV Peter Orner writes "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo"

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

By Peter Orner

LITTLE, BROWN; 309 PAGES; $23.95
During the 45 years the Peace Corps has been in existence, the organization's mission -- for obvious reasons -- has attracted a few restless, socially conscious writers. Naturally, those writers have turned their experience into books.

But as America has become more powerful, these books have become more anguished. From Norman Rush's "Mating" and "Mortals" to Philip Caputo's "Acts of Faith," they have thrown their American characters flat up against the far reaches of their empire's power -- its unwillingness (or inability) to help where help is needed.

So Peter Orner's "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" is a departure in two ways. First of all, anyone who read his exquisite debut collection, "Esther Stories," will be flat-out flabbergasted that he has leapfrogged from urban Jewish Chicago to the veld of Namibia in 1991.

Moreover, this is not a story about Americanness -- or the complicated ways in which a particular kind of white American posture of helping clashes with African ways. But rather it's a kind of "Winesburg, Ohio" that just happens to be set in the shadow of the Erongo Mountains.

Our guide to this world is Larry Karplanski, a Jewish man from Cincinnati who has decided, as Namibia gained independence, that he would lend a helping hand by teaching the young in a hamlet called Goas. Upon arriving at the village school far out in the veld, Larry is greeted by a gaggle of children and a cow, which gazes at him "in that eerie, death-announcing way cows have of looking right through you." In spite of the war's proximity, things are pretty sleepy. Drawing from the author's own experience teaching in Namibia in 1991, the novel sketches Goas and its characters with a lyric specificity. The action proceeds in 154 exquisite prose-poem-like chapters.

There's Teacher Pohamba, who fears that one night he will be killed in his sleep. "Well," he says, "it's Africa, no?" There's Destus and his dominating wife, Dikeledi, who tortures the teachers with her raw sexuality. And of course there is Mavala Shikongo, the short-skirt-wearing veteran fighter from the war of independence. Shortly after the novel begins, she returns from a mysterious absence with a newfound sense of confidence, and a 1 1/2-year-old child.

Although the book presents itself as a bit of a mystery, Mavala has very little to do with events in the first 150 pages. Rather, Orner's eye roams across the characters and the landscape, prying open one story line after another after another.

Many of these stories don't actually go anywhere. Larry and another teacher have a conversation about President Woodrow Wilson while urinating next to a tree. Chapter 122, "Drought Stories," relays the legend that "goats eventually go mad. When this happens, they refuse to obey their shepherd and flee to the open desert, where they roam like the great wild horses of the Namib until they die alone, proud." These tales may not advance a narrative, but they do deepen our sense of this place -- they capture the desultory, somewhat anticlimactic moment just after independence in Namibia. A flicker of dramatic tension proceeds from the romance that develops between Larry and Mavala, who bed down in the afternoon by the graces of Boer settlers.

History remains forever underfoot in this book -- the ground that Orner's characters walk upon -- but like the ground, it is often taken for granted. Several of the book's most poignant scenes do not involve action but images. Boys do pull-ups on an old cross. Rain comes and briefly obscures the mountains, which return again several hours later. By presenting this tale in so many broken but beautiful shards, Orner has done the seemingly impossible: His novel becomes a kind of living village. We watch the petty squabbles of teachers, the power plays between husbands and wives. We even gain access to the intimate thoughts of its participants.

But there is no "observer effect" here. Our presence does not seem to warp the action, nor does Larry's. If anything, his amused irrelevance reminds us how long this world has already existed; that its stories, too, will eventually be forgotten. "Seasons at Goas, as much as you can call cold, hot, and more hot seasons," writes Orner, "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."

In the pages of this elegant little book, those lies feel as if they could last forever.





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Story Source: San Francisco Chronicle

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Namibia; Writing - Namibia

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