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By Margaret Black

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

By Peter Orner

Little Brown & Company, 307 pages, $23.95

Peter Orner’s The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo is billed as a novel, but it’s not. It’s a brilliantly evocative sketchbook that captures not a story but a time, a certain people, and, most importantly, a place. The time is 1991, when Namibia has just won their war against South Africa. The people inhabit a minuscule Catholic primary school. And the place—the book’s main character—is central Namibia, a desperately arid plateau utterly desiccated by drought.

Insofar as The Second Coming contains a plot, it assembles around Larry Kaplanski, a young American who comes to teach at an isolated rural school for boys called Farm Goas. Soon after, another new teacher enters this nearly all-male world—Mavala Shikongo, sister of the principal’s wife. Briefly she disappears, only to reappear with a two-year-old boy in tow. Shameful though unmarried maternity may be, Mavala, a former SWAPO freedom fighter, arouses little condemnation but a good deal of languid lust and curiosity. Were it not for the debilitating heat, the burning sun, and the parching dryness that sucks all life away, someone might do something. And in time Larry does induce Mavala to spend afternoon siestas and late nights with him. Their sexual dalliance takes place out on the veld, atop the stone tombs of three dead Boers. Even out here, though, they are monitored after a fashion by Mavala’s child, who sleeps fitfully in a drug-induced stupor in a tattered child’s car seat. Truth be told, the illicit couple spend more time talking than acting, and even talking takes effort.

But the book is, as I said, really a sketchbook. At one point the author seems to despair of words and draws the one lone picture in the book of a hopelessly inadequate fence. The chapters are short—some no more than one or two sentences, the writing terse, allusive, ironic. Most of the book is perceived from Larry’s point of view, but others speak, and there are a few old documents, such as the Germans’ 1904 order to the native Herero people to leave their land or die (more than 80 percent were killed). Horrendous as the colonial experience has been, however, it plays only a tangential role. Three young children walk to the school to escape the fighting in Angola (more than 600 miles), but then leave as mysteriously as they came. An adult with a bashed-in face appears and is given work, but his language proficiency marks him in school gossip as a South African stooge and probable assassin. So he, too, moves on. Violence is out there—a nearby Boer farmer is murdered, his wife raped.

But mostly we observe the teachers, especially the bachelors—desperate Pohamba, an atheist and sex-starved revolutionary, and Vilho, the man of decency, “who still believes.” And Larry, of course. When Larry arrives, the head teacher, Obadiah, tells him everyone would have benefited more had Larry placed cash in an envelope and mailed it to the school instead of coming in person. And Larry is indeed ill-prepared to teach English grammar. “I am an American from the 1970s. In Miss Eckersley’s English class, we sewed puppets while Miss Eckersley played guitar and sang.” Characters proliferate, in cluding ancient Auntie Wilhelmina, “a wildebeestian woman” who lives in a shack on the school grounds with a pack of snarly dogs. She claims to be Kavango royalty and thus cannot allow herself to die a natural death; when her time comes, “the oldest male [of her lineage] was supposed to strangle her to death.”

The boredom at Farm Goas is excruciating, so gossip fills the spaces. “Drought stories were told the same way war stories were . . . except they were more true and left less room for dramatic acts of bravery. You don’t fight the Almighty. You don’t sneak up behind lack of rain. You don’t sabotage clouds. You die.” In the evening the five male teachers pass around an old tabloid. Who wants news when they can have “Twisted and Horny, Wife takes Grandpa Lover” or “Miss Namibia Pageant Bathing Suit Mishap, Photos”?

With Mavala, Larry walks the veld, “and the dry puckerthorns explode beneath our feet. Where the dead grass has gusted away, there are deep fissures in the dirt. The sun squashes and the weeks pass flat.” The school’s goats come in from the veld. “Still they don’t know they’re starving.” Local belief has it that dying goats go mad and flee to the wild, but the cows just sadly graze even where there’s nothing. Antoinette, Obadiah’s wife and the school’s cook and matron, reads to the cows from Genesis, about Joseph’s dream of the seven favored and the seven ill-favored kine. “That night we listened to their raspy lows from our beds. Night being the only time they expressed their displeasure toward God at being ill-favored.” There are occasional moments of beauty. One afternoon Larry sees “the dry yellow veld is moving. It takes a long stare to see that it’s a herd of springbok leaping, as one. No one can take this away from me. Because it’s real. It’s grace.”

This book is far richer and more cumulative than it appears at the start. A decade after Larry has returned home, he finally hears from Obadiah: “Excuse a long silence. We haven’t forsaken you. Your letters have not gone unread, only unanswered. . . . We’ve heard you, is what I’m trying to say. Don’t fear.” And we, for our part, have heard Obadiah, Antoinette, Mavala, Pohamba, Vilho, and all the Namibian schoolboys, as well as seen their improbably beautiful land.

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