Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer Rémy Ngamije’s sharp-witted and incisive debut, The Eternal Audience of One, paints a revealing portrait of its peripatetic protagonist and the many places he’s called home.
Séraphin Turihamwe’s family fled Rwanda for Kenya in the midst of genocide and eventually landed in Namibia. Throughout Séraphin’s story, spanning many years and several countries, Ngamije vividly captures the life of a man for whom the idea of home is “a constant source of stress, a place of conformity, foreign family roots trying to burrow into arid Namibian soil that failed to nourish him.”
Despite the cultural specificity, many readers will recognize the intergenerational conflicts and warring emotions at the center of this bildungsroman. Séraphin feels guilty about his ambivalence toward his family, wondering if “his desire to be distant from [them] marked him as an ungrateful son.” His sense of identity and his place in his family and future are all up in the air. What he knows “for certain, though, was how easy he breathed as soon as his family was behind him, when the adventure and uncertainty of Cape Town lay ahead.”
Ngamije brilliantly explores the irony in Séraphin’s identities. He’s a displaced Rwandan who feels most himself in Cape Town, South Africa, a place that doesn’t welcome Black immigrants. He’s also soon to be a graduate of law school but doesn't want to practice law. For Séraphin, pursuing his law degree was a compromise, the best of many boring but socially acceptable options for an East African kid with ambitious, educated parents.
Ngamije is as adept at conveying family drama as he is at portraying Séraphin’s days as a university student, where he is immersed in the uneasy multicultural cacophony of Cape Town. Though Séraphin’s early years were nearly touched by tragedy, his present-day life is filled with all the humor, sex and drama typically associated with coming-of-age stories.
The novel is told in close third person, with flashbacks from formative moments in the past interspersed with scenes in the present day. Séraphin is an incisive, funny and keen social observer, so inside his head is a fine place to be, whether he’s thinking about the girl he wants to sleep with or the problems of his adopted home. The story unfolds through a collection of scenes with little trajectory, all revolving around Séraphin’s social life, his friends and the women he dates, to explore racism and social hierarchies. As socially aware as Séraphin is, his inner circle and dating pool rarely include Black women. His mother is nearly the only Black woman he knows.
Ngamije’s writing is beautiful, his observations original and precise, his sense of place unsurpassed. The plot is less developed, but flaws don’t detract from this gorgeously imperfect first novel. Séraphin’s experiences depict a fascinating, multidimensional and culturally and politically damning version of post-apartheid Cape Town. Every bit of insight, succinctly and humorously presented, will cause readers to stop and think. Ngamije displays copious talent and an authentic and elegant literary style in this striking debut.