More On Memory & Longing in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Coming out of our last class I remained interested, like others, in the role of the memory and the past in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (unfortunately I ran out of time to write about it before Tuesday’s class). One of the most artful strokes of the novel, in my opinion, is Mengestu’s ability to capture his characters (especially Sepha) in these in-between spaces – home and not home – and one of the best ways he accomplishes this effect is through his use of memory. On Tuesday we briefly mentioned  the structure of the alternating past and present chapters, but it’s worth noting again what I think is actually a significant indication of the novel’s concerns, the overlapping of time frames onto one another, mirroring the struggle or longing of the immigrant experience.

Though I wonder, actually, if it’s most useful to think of this story as about the immigrant experience in general, or if there’s another way to consider it. I think this quote, spoken by Kenneth to Joseph on page 100, is potentially illuminating here: “’If you miss it so much,’ he yelled at him once, ‘why don’t you go back? Then you don’t have to say every day, This is like Africa, that is like Africa. You can’t go back, though. You would rather miss it comfortably from here instead of hating it every day from there.’”

I thought this was a rather direct and interesting explanation of one of the problems the characters in the novel face – that many of them would rather miss home than be home, because the “home” they miss isn’t actually the reality in their home country anymore. This strikes me as not exactly the immigrant experience, but more specifically the experience of the exile. To be overly simplistic, an immigrant moves from one home to another (living, of course, with the memories of their previous home), while an exile lives in a perpetual state of homelessness. This is, at the very least, what we see the characters in the novel struggling with. There are several alternative paths, offered by Joseph and Kenneth and Sepha’s uncle, among others, but no obvious solution to the problems of the exile. And this is perhaps one of the novel’s main provocations.

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