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Somewhere in Africa

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

By Peter Orner

Little, Brown, 320 pages, $23.95.

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Larry Kaplanski’s name says it all, bringing to mind used car dealers or traveling salesmen wearing old striped shirts and older blazers, balding, doggedly fumbling for the keys to their Buick LeSabre as they move on to the next Midwestern town in hopes of making a sale. A Jewish guy, from Cincinnati.

So what’s he doing in the middle of Africa?

He’s narrating most of Peter Orner’s first novel, “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo,” ostensibly teaching at an outpost of a Catholic school on Farm Gaos, out in the veld in Namibia. He’s learning about colonialism, the history of Namibia, its war for independence, and how that history has left the current crop of civilians trying to live and maintain in such an environment. He’s learning about desert heat, exhaustion, rain dancing; about stories, the importance of German beer advertisements and about people — and how they’re pretty much the same, the only difference sometimes being the weather. And he’s falling in love with the title character, the beautiful returned freedom fighter Mavala Shikongo, who teaches Kaplanski a thing or two about love, and about desperation.

“The Second Coming” follows Orner’s highly acclaimed collection of short stories, “Esther Stories” (Mariner Books, 2001). For this debut, Orner fell back on his own experiences: Like Kaplanski, he grew up Jewish in the Midwest and went to Namibia to teach in a Catholic school. Beyond this, it’s anyone’s guess whether the similarities continue. What we do know is that Orner is a writer in the style of the old guys — one who puts stock in the craft and beauty of the language, not simply in the story.

Kaplanski arrives in Namibia as “The Volunteer,” immediately out of sorts. For starters, the very scenery of the veld is a surprise. “Somehow I thought a purer desert might have been more comforting. Where were the perfect rippled dunes? Where was the startling arid beauty? These plants looked like they’d rather be dead.” He’s greeted by the principal, who informs his guest that “it would have been far more advantageous to our development… had you placed cash in an envelope and, well, to be frank, mailed it!”

But Kaplanski settles in to life at Gaos, teaching English and history. A cast of characters rotate in and out, narrating short chapters, passing the baton of sorts between them and the narrator. They share tales of life at Gaos, Boer history lessons, idle gossip, comments on the weather. They tell of adultery and murder on the farm (the adulterer killed with a bicycle spoke), geographic realities (the principal maintains a solitary patch of green grass to use for class pictures that is dubbed “Ireland”) and sociopolitical reality: “Lowest population density of any country in the world, and I live in a two-and-a-half-by-four-meter room. Explain the incongruity.”

The main plot point, however, revolves around the return of the title character, “the beautiful, and sleek, and unsmiling, and too good for us Mavala Shikongo.” The object of the male teachers’ fantasy, who blessed them with her presence for three weeks before abruptly leaving: “Twenty one days was enough for us all, single or divorced, or wanting to be divorced, decrepit or spry, morally repugnant or generally decent every last one of us to fall, to stagger, to cave into love with Mavala Shikongo.”

Mavala eventually “picks” Kaplanski, and the two engage in a romance that sums up the entire Gaos experience: He is falling in love, while she seems to just be passing time. There is petty jealousy among the men, but it’s notable that Mavala and Kaplanski’s differences in skin color and religion never become an issue. It’s too hot in Gaos, too desolate, too forlorn; the burgeoning interracial relationship between Mavala and Kaplanski ruffles few feathers.

Armed with a collection of simple anecdotes and events and musings, Orner writes them up with such force that you’re drawn in by the craft of the writing. That he so effortlessly weaves in a good story, with memorable characters, is an added bonus.

Jacob Suskewicz is a writer living in New York.

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