A friend who migrated to the United States young once told me that her first and only return to her birth country ended with a bout of malaria. There was no revelatory homecoming; in lieu of self-knowledge came sickness, as though her origins were trying to spit her back out. Narrative is one of many tariffs that the world exacts from the uprooted. But what happens when the vagaries of displacement don’t add up to a story, or at least not one that its subject is willing to tell?
In “Hangman”—a slim, stark, and captivatingly enigmatic début novel by the writer Maya Binyam—this dilemma inspires an experiment in erasure. Its narrator is a middle-aged émigré, who’s returning to his birthplace to visit his sick brother after a quarter century abroad. He is also a nameless cipher, whose lack of definite features recalls the doomed stick figure in the titular children’s game. Filling in the blanks about who he is, why he left, and how he feels about returning propels an exploration of what people demand from migrants and their stories. The narrator, too, is tested, as his journey becomes a confrontation with the ghosts of an abandoned life. “Death was a communal process,” he observes, “even if you wanted to experience it alone.”
At first, we know only that the narrator is boarding a flight on a journey planned by others. He speaks of himself like a marionette, in a laconic prose that omits motive, proper nouns, and all but the most skeletal descriptions; on the threshold of airport security, he writes, “I gave him my driver’s license, walked through the metal detector, and then my body went away.” Gradually, a wisp of biography condenses. The traveller is a married taxi-driver in his fifties, and a naturalized citizen of a country where he is occasionally subject to racist harassment. (With allusions to drone warfare and a health-care debate, it sounds a lot like the Obama-era United States.) The place he’s going to resembles Ethiopia, with mentions of a deposed emperor and a civil war that may have resulted in his own expatriation. The context is tempting to deduce, but it also comes to seem unimportant—or even at cross-purposes with Binyam’s project, as if a fog of cultural particularity might have obscured the book’s ethical crux.
The real guesswork concerns the narrator’s relationship to his homeland, a place all but denatured by his benumbed observations. There are no distinctive sights, sounds, or smells to provoke nostalgia—only the absurdity of irrational changes, such as an unfinished railway system whose “viaducts cast the city in shadow, enticing its inhabitants to ascend staircases that led to nowhere.” In this world stripped of sensory detail, social structures, like families and economies, become more nakedly visible. Shortly after landing, the narrator visits the palatial home of a cousin, who acquired his wealth by defrauding relatives and imposing himself as a middleman between electrical companies and local governments. The house’s labyrinth of superfluous hallways mirrors the convoluted self-justifications spewed by its owner over a meal: “He could either be like everyone and help no one, or be an individual and help the world.”
Binyam wrings mordant humor from these paraphrased conversations, which grow increasingly strange as the narrator travels from the city toward his family’s remote village. On a bus, he meets a young foreigner volunteering with an aid organization, who rapturously describes her assistance to a widowed farmer and his baby: “Chewing his child’s food, turning it into a paste, she felt as if she were relinquishing the idea of her body as an abstraction, and giving it to something, or to someone, who could use it to draw life into his own.” Later, he eavesdrops on a pair of graduate students, who trade theories about history and discuss the revolutionary period that upended his own life. (One of them suggests that his exiled father must have knocked up his mother out of political fervor: “Climaxing felt revolutionary.”) He tests their ideas against the immediate surroundings: “I looked around for signs of the omnipresence of global corporations and saw a goat eating some trash.”
Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy, whose poker-faced narrator also unravels others’ self-narratives, is a clear influence. (Like “Outline,” “Hangman” begins with a conversation between the narrator and his seatmate on an airplane—who dies mid-flight, as though to signal that this will be a very different kind of story.) Yet the strategy has a different resonance in an exile’s tale than it does amid the posturing and ennui of creative-writing workshops. The expectation for an American novel about an African immigrant is that it will perform a task of translation: here is where I come from, and these are the painful circumstances under which I left. “Hangman,” with its sphinxlike style, turns a mirror on these demands. Faced with the nosiness of relatives, the vampiric empathy of foreigners, and the lazy psychoanalysis of his countrymen, its narrator would simply prefer not to.
“Hangman” would be impressive enough as a Rorschach test about narratives of exile. But its fixation on illness and death also gives it a darker valence. Early in the novel, a man complains that his family broke the news of a relative’s death without gathering to tell him in person, as tradition dictates. Curiously, the narrator objects to this “convoluted” practice, as though the grief of others might erode his cultivated isolation. Later, when his cousin’s wife cries at sad family news, he dismisses her reaction:
A latent cruelty begins to reveal itself in his opaqueness. When he reads e-mails in an Internet café, we learn that he has been neglecting many of his brother’s increasingly desperate pleas for money, visa sponsorship, and medication; as with the old merchant in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s “By the Sea,” the sympathetic refugee is suddenly recast in a more selfish light. His insensibility to family ties emerges in tandem with an alarming disorientation. His luggage disappears near a bus stop. He unaccountably gives his wallet to a teller at a bank. An overzealous employee at a charity persuades him to accept hand-me-downs—including a family-reunion shirt, ironically enough—from donors abroad, which leave him smelling “like a corpse.” Most alarmingly, he seems to have forgotten his blood-pressure medication.
The narrator reacts to these largely self-inflicted misfortunes with a strange passivity: Is he following some logic of allegory? Or is he merely losing his mind? The string of puzzling decisions and improbable encounters can be frustrating. I awaited a disclosure that would either clarify the narrator’s actions—like the sin revealed at the end of Teju Cole’s “Open City”—or push the book into the realm of existential fable, like Samuel Beckett’s “Molloy.” Instead, Binyam walks a tightrope between the two. At times, the book adheres a little too stringently to the rules of its own formal game, though its unrelieved tensions are also a critique of its genre’s easy epiphanies.
One given that “Hangman” questions is exiles’ authority to pronounce upon the places they leave. Binyam shows her narrator failing to recognize one relative after the other, and being misrecognized in turn. A soldier turns him away from a historic church because he refuses to pay the tourist fee, and cannot prove that he was once a citizen. In one particularly striking scene, a white missionary woman invites him to discuss his salvation at her church group’s residence—a bungalow lined with banana trees that turns out to be his own former home. Binyam’s narrator, like the Biblical Adam doubling back toward Eden, finds the fruits despoiled and the gates barred against him. ♦