Dinaw Mengestu, “An Honest Exit,” July 12/19:
Mengestu’s story is one of those that I feel it’s somehow offensive or politically incorrect to not have enjoyed—much like when I thought What is the What was boring, and everyone chided me for it (“Oh, SORRY that the fucking Sudanese genocide isn’t fun enough for you!” one friend told me)—but, the truth remains: I didn’t like the story.
The main character is a high school teacher that essentially ignores the lesson plan for a week and instead spends class telling his students the saga of his father, who escaped from Ethiopia. His father has recently died, which is why the teacher can’t really function or talk about anything else, but he gets a weird kind of satisfaction out of knowing that the whole school is talking about the stories he’s telling: “Huge tides of sympathy were mounting for my dead father and me. Students I had never spoken to now said hello to me when they saw me in the hallway.” He even gets called in by his principal and questioned about why he’s ditching his real task to talk about his dad.
But then, when he admits the appeal of the stories: “I had brought directly to their door a tragedy that outstripped anything they could personally have hoped to experience,” Mengestu also inadvertently reminds us why the story falls a bit flat, or at least why it did for me: what his father went through is so far removed from the world I know that it’s difficult for me to become engaged with the brutal tale. And the father’s struggle is also removed because it’s told secondhand, with the primary setting being the teacher in his classroom.
No, I’m not suggesting that one can only be moved by what is familiar to them, but I am saying that, for whatever reason, I was never that engaged by the father’s story, because the outcome is so clear: he makes it away safely, but it’s a terrible journey, he almost dies, and he remembers the harrowing struggle for the rest of his life, and tells his son about it, who in turn feels the pain of what happened. So, this story was emotionally told but didn’t do much for me in the end. But I did like the bits that take place in the school, involving his students’ reactions to the story, and how his personal history has affected them. An exploration of that would have been better.