If you’ve ever lived in a small town or attended a small school or worked in a small office, you’re surely familiar with the gossiping, the flirtations, the unnoticed revolutions, the amateurish intrigues, the idle speculation, the short tempers, and the occasional tender mercies that are woven through the daily fabric of those experiences. These things are probably universal — the plot elements never change, just the cast of characters.
Peter Orner thinks that the only truly exotic place would be one that’s completely uninhabited by people. And thus it is that while the first novel by this award-winning author is set in the unlikely location of the Namibian veld, in south Africa, the faculty and students in the Catholic school that provides the main backdrop for the story will be as familiar to most readers as the backs of their hands.
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo is set in the early 90s, not long after Namibia won its independence from South Africa. There’s a small all-boys Catholic school located in Goas, which the reader will come to view as dry and dreary and hopeless as place as any ever portrayed in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Into this barren backwater (sans the water) comes Larry Kaplanski, a young Jewish teacher from Cincinnati who has volunteered in a sort of Peace Corps-evoking mission to help educate young Namibians.
Second Coming is a stream-of-consciousness account of Kaplansk’s (the others inexplicably decide his name doesn’t warrant the final “i”) time at the school. Despite what the book jacket says, he is the main character and most frequent narrator, although others occasionally take over the story-telling. Mavala Shikongo is a young and unmarried female teacher — a veteran of the bloody war for independence — who reappears, with young child in tow, at Goas after an unexplained absence, and after Kaplanski’s arrival. As the only “eligible” female for miles around, she attracts the attention of all the men at Goas, including the married ones. Kaplanski is the only one to succeed in getting close to her, but with puzzling results.
I once wrote something about “blooks,” books derived from blogs. Second Coming might be the inverse: a blog in book form. Orner has chosen an unusual format for his story. The book, which is about 300 pages in length, contains 153 chapters. Some chapters are but a few sentences in length, and none are more than a few pages. They’re more like blog posts than literary chapters, and a given chapter doesn’t necessarily build on or relate to those immediately surrounding it.
Still, Orner succeeds in painting a complete picture of life in a place that most of us cannot imagine and will likely never visit. The authenticity comes honestly; Orner himself worked as a teacher in Namibia. His descriptions of life in the drought-stricken veld will ring true to any desert dweller, and his insertion of various facets of Namibian history will be enlightening without becoming pedagogical. And his characters are uniformly complex and imaginative.
In the final anaysis, however, Second Coming may not be entirely satisfying, leaving the reader to fill in some significant gaps (the actual ending comes ten years after the rest of the book) in the lives of the main characters. Depending on one’s tolerance for ambiguity, or willingness to partner with the author in finishing the story, this could be either a strength or a weakness of the book.
This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy provided to me by the Time Warner Book Group. The book is scheduled for publication on April 24, 2006.
Second Coming contains passages with explicit and implied sexual content; this is not a novel for youngsters.