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The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo    by Peter Orner order for
Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
by Peter Orner
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In the early 1990s, Larry Kaplanski of Cincinnati, Ohio travels to Namibia, Africa as a volunteer to teach English and history at an isolated Catholic school, Farm Goas, deep in the veld. It's a monastic existence for the mostly male teachers, who indulge in extravagant gossip and speculation about each other's lives (they even do so through the thin walls of their rooms at night, as whem Pohamba raps on the wall with 'My dreams are too loud ... Aren't yours?')

These cloistered men in their wilderness school tell strange war stories and drought stories to relieve the tedium - the Goan equivalent of urban myths. Women become larger than life in this dead end place, so that the men vocally hunger after the few unobtainable ones present, to the point that they're erotically stimulated by watching mating pigeons. And then Mavala Shikongo shows up, 'Che Guevara ... In a skirt.' The beautiful, mysterious ex-guerrilla fighter (now a kindergarten teacher) brings her bastard child with her, leading to a major escalation in the rumor mill, the situation being most unusual 'for a woman teacher at a Catholic school where her brother-in-law is principal.'

Peter Orner's magnificent descriptions of people and place put readers right there in the heat and dust, watching individuals like this minor character: 'A wildebeestian woman, the only answer is to look away, but it's impossible ... Her cheeks sag off her face like grocery bags overstuffed with fruit. Her teeth, cruel, sharp, heinously white - on the days she wore them in ... Beyond ugly, Auntie Wilhelmina, beyond ghastly, and this was the fundamental problem. The woman was a fascination.' The novel is slow and atmospheric, progressing through dreamlike memories, with a regular insertion of the voices of different inhabitants of the school compound.

Gradually, with no obvious change, Larry and Mavala Shikongo begin to meet at siesta time by the Boer graves, to chat and eventually make love. They connect but don't ever seem to fully bridge the cultural gap in communication. They drift together and apart again in a novel, in which Farm Goas itself becomes a major character as the author portrays a variety of individual desperation, briefly interrupted by joint fascination for an unusual woman, of whom Kaplanski muses, 'Her voice alone, I tell you, could slow an afternoon.'

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