Hangman: A Novel
- By Maya Binyam
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 208 pp.
- Reviewed by Sally Shivnan
- August 10, 2023
A one-time political prisoner takes a surreal, mesmerizing journey back to Africa.
The beginning of Maya Binyam’s debut novel, Hangman, gives no indication of the unique, strange trip about to unfold. A middle-aged man returns to the land of his birth to see his brother, who claims to be gravely ill but who mainly seems to want money and gifts.
The first clue that this is not going to be a straightforward story is that the unnamed narrator begins his journey home as a result of a mysterious phone call telling him to go. He takes a suitcase packed by someone else (another mystery). His destination is the African nation where he was a political prisoner before moving to the U.S. as a refugee and later becoming a citizen. He’s curious to see how life has changed in this place he has not visited for decades. By the end of the book, however, the story is quite different from how it started and opens up in a shrewd, whole new way.
The narrator’s journey involves a series of surreal encounters in which people ranging from taxi drivers to foreign-aid workers to street vendors and graduate students tell him their life stories or discuss philosophy and politics. He meets a bank teller who hates arithmetic, a man selling yogurt who believes in parallel universes hidden behind glass, and a cousin who lives in a huge house with lots of hallways but few rooms and where he is forced to share his bathroom with a pigeon. Through it all, the narrator tries to stay open-minded, such as when regarding the bird in the loo:
“I thought, many things have probably changed since I left this country, and being open to sharing a shower with a pigeon may be one of them.”
As he continues his travels, his conversations include thought-provoking observations that are often recognizable far beyond the boundaries of the struggling, war-torn country where the story takes place. He discusses how the internet mostly makes people “imitate the behavior of other people on the internet.” He meets a man who explains how his job “consisted primarily of doing things that people do at any kind of job: for example, waiting for the job to end.”
His reflection on how strangers help people in need is also familiar: “They gave them whatever they had, even if what they had was completely useless to the person they were trying to help, because helping someone else was usually just as much about helping oneself feel better.” This is describing individual behavior, but it is easy to see how it might apply to foreign-policy decisions and international development. Hangman is clearly interested in broad geopolitical issues — for instance, in its anecdote about subsistence farmers coerced by “businesspeople in the city who also called themselves farmers” into growing crops for export that they, themselves, cannot afford.
The human experience that the book perhaps captures best is the phenomenon of displacement and its effect on one’s sense of identity. Many characters struggle with this, including the narrator, who first faced the loss of his family and culture as a young man and is now dealing with it again in his rootless wanderings. These are feelings that anyone marginalized, anyone denied a sense of home, can recognize, and Binyam’s portrait of a man in search of belonging is deeply moving. “I would be able to go anywhere in the world I wanted,” the narrator says, “but where I wanted to go had no significance, since no one, no matter where I went, was going to know me.”
The book’s narrative style fits this sense of displacement. The language is simple, although it can also be poetic — in describing the view from the plane, the narrator says, “After an hour, the ocean was the size of my window.” And sometimes, the writing has great warmth, as in this description of a tearful embrace:
“I hugged him for a long time, until I thought my body was his body.”
It is a detached, matter-of-fact style, as if the narrator is sharing in a puzzled but offhand way all that he has been through. He reports his conversations but does not quote lines of dialogue. He does not give names or locations, or describe settings or people in depth. These things do not interest him. The style works for this story; the voice grows familiar and feels trustworthy.
At the end of the novel, the narrator’s own trust in his tale is upended in a unique, remarkable way that invites readers to revisit their assumptions as things fall into place that had not seemed out of place before. The conclusion is in keeping with the absurd elements everywhere in the story and with the dreamlike quality of the narrator’s journey. It’s a clever ending that some may find too clever.
“So, I stood where I stood,” Binyam’s narrator declares at one point, “waiting for my life to happen.” Plenty ends up happening for him on this otherworldly trip to the trippy otherworld that is Maya Binyam’s Hangman.
Sally Shivnan is the author of the short-story collection Piranhas & Quicksand & Love. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, and other journals, and her travel writing has been featured in anthologies including Best American Travel Writing, as well as in the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Nature Conservancy Magazine, and many other publications. She teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).