To name your book In the United States of Africa, and to present readers with a vision of the world turned completely on its head, in which the urbane citizens of Rwanda, Nigeria, and the eastern Cape are given to fretting over a chronic glut of working-class immigrants from the war-torn and disease-ridden hamlets of Europe and North America, is to suggest a project barely containable in this volume’s hundred-odd pages. There’s too much history to reshape, too many explanations to offer.
Thankfully, Djiboutian novelist Abdourahman A. Waberi isn’t much interested in offering explanations. The World Health Organization is now headquartered in Banjul, Gambia; ecologists and intellectuals from sub-Saharan Africa vie for the Arafat Peace Prize; and if all this seems just too improbable, well, nobody said this was nonfiction. If there is a sharp glimmer of the absurd in Waberi’s premise, it suits his satire as well as the absurdity of the Lilliputians did Swift’s or that of Pangloss did Voltaire’s. The satirists of the eighteenth century are in fact Waberi’s most evident formal predecessors; his short chapters open with such archaic and mellifluous titles as “In which the author gives a brief account of the origins of our prosperity and the reasons why the Caucasians were thrown onto the paths of exile.”
Waberi does not require of his readers a sustained interest in global economics or geopolitical paradigm shifts, but rather a simple attention to the minutiae of human gesture. The novella is structured around three voyages—to Asmara, Eritrea; to “The Heart of the Studio” (a metaphoric foray into modern-art criticism); and finally to Paris, visualized here as a single enormous slum—but the wanderings are mostly psychological and conducted chiefly by Malaïka, a recent graduate of the Accra Art School who is discovering her artistic identity just as her adoptive mother is dying. Perhaps in order to emphasize his heroine’s freedom of mind, Waberi tells her story through the second person, observing and questioning her motives as she trolls through childhood memories and contemplates her future.
This choice of perspective gradually creates problems for the story’s credibility. One is tempted to blame the translators, as David and Nicole Ball’s rendering occasionally slips embarrassingly with sentences such as this one, concerning child prostitutes in Paris: “In the half-light, little blonde girls in want of customers offer up their thighs of orphaned sirens to the caresses of the wind.” A number of coherent statements flit within this passage yet none ever alight. But the author can also be called to account: In what can only be described as the brazen abuse of a character’s independence, Waberi takes it on himself to describe Malaïka’s future in pointless detail. Would that we had been allowed, instead, to take the extraordinary world we’ve been given and imagine that future for ourselves.