In Swahili-speaking Africa, a wabenzi is a member of the privileged class, those lucky wabwana who drive Mercedes...

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“I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir”
by Rafi Zabor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 472 pp., $26

In Swahili-speaking Africa, a wabenzi is a member of the privileged class, those lucky wabwana who drive Mercedes Benzes. Brooklyn-born and bred Rafi Zabor wistfully dreams of such a car, and so when presented with the opportunity to own a used Mercedes, he plans a road trip, a sort of funeral dirge for his recently deceased parents.

But instead, Zabor travels backwards beyond the surface highways, detouring onto spiritual paths that lead him, via Coltrane riffs, the spiritual thinker Gurdjieff, and whirling Sufis, into his past. He revisits a 1970s spiritual commune, recalls the ’80s, when he cared for his appallingly ill parents and anguishes over his father’s lifetime of personal sacrifices.

Zabor riffs from humor to pathos as he decries his mother’s dark descent into senility, a narrative rescued from the maudlin by a drumroll of humor, as every Zabor fan would expect from this flash master of tragic-comedy.

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Zabor is a jazz drummer, music critic and winner of the PEN/Faulkner award for his novel, “The Bear Comes Home.” All the skills required for this triple career are evident as the author leads his readers through a rhythmically soaring, metaphorically spot-on, Sufi-infused narrative that travels an emotional highway from hell to ecstasy and the strangeness of moments in between.

Zabor loathes the term “memoir,” and so he calls this first of four volumes of autobiographical material “A Souvenir.” Indeed, readers who take on this marvelously weighty volume will be left at the end with a memento and anticipation for the next installment.