blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, by Peter Orner

No one directly admits to needing God or anyone else in Goas, the desert farm and Catholic boys’ school of Peter Orner’s debut novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo; Orner renders the need between every person and every other person so palpable that it does not warrant articulation. Located on the bleak veld of central Namibia, Goas is the setting for seemingly every kind of wanting, to the power of infinity. Everyone there lusts after something or other: the single teachers wish for any and all young women, married ones and nuns included; the principal projects his own desires, and their attendant guilt, in his cold-morning sermons to the teachers; Obadiah, the old married teacher, prefers to yearn for his elderly wife rather than actually take her; and the wife herself makes furtive trips across the sand of the common area to steal raisins from a jar in her own tiny hut. In the heat and misery of a forgotten region of Africa, where even revolution is mostly an afterthought, the only dignity these characters have left is to pretend that they lack nothing—as if, by admitting their weaknesses, they would be giving up their last right to independence.

Orner uses tiny chapters, sometimes less than half a page in length, to immerse the reader in the deprivation of Goas. His descriptions are poetic in their sparseness, with language so vivid that the very brevity of each section makes the place and its people more real. It is as if taking too many words to describe the place and its characters would rob them of their truth: that people as lonely and deprived as these should not have to speak of their wants. These unspoken wants are so great that, when anyone does break down and express a need, it is both sad and incredibly erotic. With a power at once ancient and immediate, Orner accomplishes what Ovid did in his telling of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe: unveiling the longing of people condemned to talk through cracks in a wall.

It would be easy to interpret the book as symbolic of the oppression and colonization of native Africa—a story of an unbearably hot, dry, godforsaken place, peopled with those who can’t get away; as well as a love story about a white volunteer from Cincinnati, who makes an unlikely connection with a black female freedom-fighter. But Orner wants his novel to be more, and succeeds in making it so. The protagonist (and stand-in for Orner himself, who spent time volunteering in Namibia), is called Larry Kaplanski. Along with every other male at the school, Kaplanski does indeed lust after the mysterious ex-military-woman-turned-young-mother, Mavala Shikongo. But the real subject of the book is its various kinds of restraint, both imposed and voluntary. It takes half the novel, after an almost incantatory series of small moments, for the lovers to meet. When they do, there is no rush of professed emotion, no great deluge of confessed feeling. Rather, it happens during one of the principal’s interminable morning sermons, as the helplessly drowsy teachers listen to their woefully inferior leader pontificate upon the sinfulness of lust. Kaplanski, who by this time has learned not to hope for anything but more fantasizing, has to struggle to figure out what is going on:

Thou shalt not what? Thou shalt not everything. . . Lust grows out from under the rock like wattle bush. Lust needs no water for a thousand days. Mavala, next to Vilho, who’s next to me, reaches her foot over and nips the back of my shin with the tip of her heel. Then she says something into her coffee. . . . The principal is so loud we can sometimes talk under him. I drink and keep my nose deep in there, lean closer to Vilho, who pretends not to notice. I point my cup her way.
And myself, still early-morning dopish, gurgle back: “What?”
“Bored. I’m very bored.”
“Hast Thou enough meatflesh, you insatiable whoremongers?” the principal booms.
And the fog begins to lift, and in a greedy yes covetous yes yes carnal whisper I nearly shriek into my coffee: Okay, so . . .

And so begins a love affair of no great moment, described with the combination of humor and miserable longing that Orner uses masterfully throughout. The desires of these lovers, though, are only part of a host of barely-whetted appetites in a book bursting with the fever and ridiculousness of longing.

In the Catholic school compound, where fornication is forbidden, the lovers can meet only in the searing heat and light of afternoon siesta, on the graves of dead farmers:

We bucked the schedule of life at Goas, and this was somehow a small thrill, the best we could muster. We’d come from different directions and be shocked to see each other. . . . In the bleak light, the two of us leaning against the graves. Her making small piles of gravel with her fingers, then smoothing them. . . . I lied. Mavala lied. We said we didn’t need sleep. Sometimes we couldn’t help it, and in that light it was like falling asleep under interrogation. Even then she was restless, talking to herself and fisting and unfisting her hands.

In keeping with Goas’ atmosphere of unsatisfied lust, as readers we ourselves are not allowed any juicy details of their coupling; instead, we are privy only to their conversation. But then we realize—it is this, the communication between two private souls, that is the real fornication.

When the trysting comes to its undemonstrative conclusion, it is no more than what the reader has come to expect: like Pyramus and Thisbe, we have grown used to allowing desire the least fulfillment possible, through the smallest cracks and fissures. Orner’s compact, spare pictures of Goas come to represent a whole, fully formed world of wanting. Just as Ovid’s ancient lovers come to love the very wall that separates them, the reader grows to love the small, excruciatingly vivid details of this unknown, unsung region of Africa: its animals, its people, its passions.  end of text

Peter Orner’s first novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo was a San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller.  His collection of short fiction, Esther Stories, won the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers and was a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Stories from the collection have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2001 and the Pushcart Prize XXV: Best of the Small Presses, 2001 Edition. His work has also appeared in such journals as The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, BOMB, The Paris Review, and The Southern Review.

spacer Peter Orner

Read excerpts From The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo in this issue of Blackbird

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