Everywhere You Go, There You Are

A Review of Rémy Ngamije’s The Eternal Audience of One

Thulani Angoma-Mzini

We know much less than we think we do. We can hardly tell in real time which parts of our unfolding lives are good news and which are bad news. Not until right at the end at least. The certainty we have most times that where we are is never as good as where we want to be is fanciful at best. In one way, Rémy Ngamije’s debut novel The Eternal Audience of One is about the undoing of that certainty. It is a subtle message proffered in many a migrant story in the African diaspora. Patsy, in Nicole Dennis-Benn’s book of the same title, learns that there’s no green grass in the land of the greenback. The unnamed protagonist of Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief yearns to escape his home country, Nigeria, in search of something better. After fifteen years in the US he finds it still elusive. The homing journey described in the book doesn’t quite yield to the feeling of home which is often a resolving note to such discord. Séraphin, the protagonist of Ngemije’s novel, is a sulky millennial who also embodies this flight of fancy. He yearns, in a hopeful way, to fly out of the nest; to leave the overcrowding family of parents and siblings, to cleave from a nagging and imposing mother, to flee to other lands. “The purpose of home is to be left,” he tells his younger brother, Yves, as he contemplates finding post-university work outside his hometown, Windhoek, in Namibia. Conjuring an “anywhere but here” attitude, Ngamije reminds us that there are neither absolutes nor straight lines to happiness. And most importantly, that: “Geography doesn’t solve matters of the heart or mind. It just provides new coordinates for dealing with the past.”

Most events in the book happen in the past, which makes the present of Séraphin’s and his refugee parents’ lives largely uneventful. What happens in the present is the contemplation of either the past or the future. The main event in the first few chapters of the book is a New Year’s Eve party hosted by Therésa and her husband, Guillome. The guest list comprises Rwandan expats. The inadvertent theme of the party is reminiscence as the party goers reflect on their immigrant lives in foreign countries. What happens in Séraphin’s present are a few sexual encounters. Everything else happens in the past as we are given the origin stories of all the major characters. The main event of the past is the struggle for survival. Therésa and Guillome survive the Rwandan genocide and outlive their initial dreams of upward social mobility. Séraphin survives teenage angst with some creatively crafted and named music mix tapes. Even the fictitious Remms University, where Séraphin graduates, survives its apartheid background to become the preeminent tertiary institution (and scene of student life debauchery).

It is in this context of post-survival nothingness that Ngamije invites the reader to consider what it means to be at home. To be at peace with not only yourself but with the banality of a life not quite privileged, but without any of the trappings of abject poverty or of re-building lives from the ruins of war. There are internal anxieties galore, as parents worry about the futures of their children and the retention of culture, and children worry about the strategies of responding to cell phone texts. But no one is in dire straits. All the grand love affairs have passed, and each person must now reckon with what dreams may never come.

The Eternal Audience of One is primarily the story of Séraphin. Born in Rwanda, bred in Namibia, and coming of age in South Africa, he struggles to identify with any space as home. His household of mother, father, and two younger brothers feels as foreign as the home country he left in a politically fuelled haste at a single-digit age. He feels he needs to survive them for the duration of his adolescent life, until adulthood transports him to a chosen home. His mother, Therésa, blames the detachment of her firstborn son and the lack of cohesion in her family on the Rwandan genocide,

“Mostly…she blamed a downed plane, radio broadcasts, the resurrection of long-held ethnic hates, Western indifference, nights of fear and days of hate which eroded carefully built futures and devoured connected clan pasts, forcing families to survive first, and then learn to live and, hopefully, love later. After all, she told herself, you only love after you have survived.”

Whatever it is that unhinges the family, Séraphin wants out. He opts for a university in Cape Town, South Africa, to go and study; first an English degree (on account of being awarded a bursary) and then post-grad law (on account of being awarded black parents who expect a more tangible return on investment than personal fulfilment). There he collates his chosen family – a ragtag team of recruits to adulthood who have similar yearnings for elsewhere. His crew – named the High Lords of Empireland in that common practice of youthful nomenclature that binds chosen kin – runs eight people deep: one Nigerian, two Zimbabweans, one Kenyan, three South Africans, and Séraphin, with his hybridity of Rwanda and Namibia. Each of the High Lords has specific feelings and objectives about home after varsity. The Zimbabweans are patriotic and will remit their skills back home. The Kenyan’s plans to return to Nairobi are nostalgic. The Nigerian is reluctant. And the South Africans are provincial in their ambitions. Séraphin is decidedly unsure. He dreams of an array of places, all of which are neither here nor there. And so begins the undoing. Lofty dreams of magical places are grounded by an inevitable return as the book ends with Séraphin back in Namibia teaching secondary school English.

Ngamije’s writing is obsessed with three things: Namibia, the conversations that happen in the space between poverty and affluence, and the human struggle with regret and hope. Perhaps it is more succinct (although relatively reductionist) to say Ngamije is enamoured with duality. Namibia is presented as a place of either extreme heat, where: “The summers are long and sweaty, so much so that job offers can be sweetened by throwing in the promise of air-conditioning” or “fucking cold…Running noses are the only exercises anyone gets in the winter.”  Ngamije’s short stories (at least those currently published in accessible mediums) are all set in a comprehensively described Namibia. The narrator of the short story, ‘The Giver of Nicknames’, published in the literary magazine Lolwe, speaks of the limited content the country provides for secondary school English essays:

“All we wrote about was the calefaction of days in the North, the sand in the South, and the repetitive stories our oumas en oupas told us when we were condemned to stay with them in the long December holidays.”

The country’s suburb and street names present a curious importation of otherness which reflects a historically inherited diversity in the country’s demographics. In the 2020 AKO Caine Prize shortlisted story ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’, which was first published in The Johannesburg Review of Books, the motley group of homeless characters in it describe a suburb with streets named after famous mountains, Namibian rivers, and precious stones:

“From there they scour Eros, from top to bottom, through all the streets named after mountains they will never climb, the rivers they shall never see, all the precious stones they will never hold: Everest, Atlas, and the Drakensberg; Orange, Kunene, Okavango and Kuiseb; Amethyst, Topaz and Tourmaline.”

Even in Séraphin’s home suburb of Windhoek-West, there are streets that lend themselves more to group trivia board games than the country’s history:

“[In December] Besides a few families on Séraphin’s street the only people who remain behind are the dead classical composers and scientists that live a second but anonymous, mispronounced, and misspelt life on street plaques. Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Puccini, Strauss, Schubert, and Verdi; Behring, Best, Cuarie, Jenner, Pasteur, Roentgen, Watt – their importance is irrelevant to many of the suburb’s residents.”

Ngamije is intentional about introducing the world to the Namibian landscape. As part of the exercise of representing himself in literature (and by so doing, reflecting other Africans like him) he purposefully gives readers a taste of a space that is seldom visited upon by the artistic gaze. Such is his commitment to his home country that in 2019 he established and launched Namibia’s first literary magazine for Namibian creatives, Doek!.

Ngamije’s short story ‘Dankie Botswana (or, Semper Fi)’ published in Doek! carries the second of his occupations – the interaction between the worlds of the poor and of the rich. In the short story, the narrator engages in an internal dialogue about his own transition from poverty, through secondary schools that were beyond the means of parents who wished to carve out a decent future for their children out of a history of want, all the way to his self-conscious interaction with a childhood friend who was unable to escape the grips of black tax. All this happens as he and his friend travel from the suburbs to the townships of Namibia in the local brand of public transportation, the Toyota Corollas, peculiarly named ‘Dankie Botswanas’.

“We crest a hill. Below us are the flatlands where Rinzlo and I spent most of our childhood.  This was before my parents made enough to upgrade to a neighbourhood with pavements…From this height, the flatlands are flattered by the last of the sun’s light. They’re a smudge of indigo and purple. We dip down the hill. The flatlands lose their romance. The houses shrink. The walls become fences. The trees, stunted at first, disappear altogether.”

The duality created by income inequality is negotiated by all of Ngamije’s protagonists. Séraphin knows that his attendance at the prestigious St Luke’s Roman Catholic College “…where the high-ranking politicians and government officials pay their fees early and contribute generously to the school’s building fund…” is not by the grace of God, but by the financial discipline of his parents. He and others like him do not have the luxury of mediocrity. Every one of the 12 years of internment to quality education must be served with the utmost diligence to ensure the lifting of a generation to new social strata. The tension that arises from the code-switching that black children and young adults must perform when dealing with peers out of their league energises Ngamije’s stories. Even the homeless characters in ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’ find themselves influenced by a suburban class system that forces them to a brand of code-switching of their own:

“They head to town since they have the best clothes and will not stand out too much or draw the ire of the city police patrols or the judging stares of security guards. If they walk slowly enough other pedestrians will not catch their stench.”

The most intriguing of Ngamije’s explorations however is how he seems to advocate for the present moment. Each character undergoes the aforementioned undoing of certainty in tomorrow, and resolves that the future is not the answer to the present. Energies and aspirations are refocused to the now, wherein one must survive themselves every day in order to see tomorrow. The most dramatic (and eye-moistening) representation of this is Guillome’s story of a love not lost but foregone in a moment. A love that could’ve changed the unfolding of the lives presented in The Eternal Audience of One, possibly erasing the story of Therésa, Séraphin and Namibia, but perhaps creating a whole other world. Given what Ngamije weaves from that one moment, however, Guillome’s choice, in the moment, to fall in love with Therésa can never be judged with the nostalgic spectacles of hindsight. Not even by Guillome himself:

“I understand from Bianca she was funny,” Guillome said.

Silence. Then, “Yes, she was.”

“Then you should go all in. You do not find that often. Your mother, when I met her, she could make me laugh. I knew I had to go all in. But there was a time when I did not know how to play this game…I had to be shown too. I was in university, about your age, before I met your mother. I had a choice to make. To go all in or to fold.”

“What did you choose?”

“I folded. Obviously, Séraphin.”

“Guess she wasn’t worth it then.”

Guillome rested his elbows on the balcony railing. Then softly, almost inaudibly, he said, “Yes, he was.”

It is perhaps the point of the 503-page novel to bring our consciousness to the marvel of the present moment. Where the excitement is unfolding in real time. Ngamije dissects the nuances and minutiae of daily life in both imaginative ways and in beautiful turns of phrase. An example of the former is when he tracks the formation of Sera’s gait from the waddle of a child to the strut of a confidently indifferent young adult – a walk that, at its peak, shadows the march of Richard Ashcroft in the music video for ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. An example of the word artistry is in phrases like:

“Annoyance nibbled at the edges of his voice”

“Maxime’s tales made up for his height deficiency” and

“The kitchen clock ticked and then it tocked.”

The Eternal Audience of One has no particular plot, no particular climax or any particular physical struggle. But Ngamije puts together a theatre of the internal agitations of the mind – ambition, disappointment, and the ultimate acceptance of what is over what should be – and in so doing shuffles the furniture in the readers’ consciousness, leaving one to convene only with themselves in contemplation.

Thulani Angoma-Mzini is a South African aspiring creative non-fiction writer with a passion for reading and a desire to write more.

 

*Image: Cover of US edition of The Eternal Audience of One forthcoming from Scout Press (August 10, 2021)