Maaza Mengiste’s novels reject grand narratives, instead offering uncommonly intimate glimpses of what it was like to live through the century of war and dictatorship that created today’s Ethiopian diaspora.\
Absent the neat divisions of ideology, Mengiste refuses moralization and captures the daily accrued trauma of living through war.
The revolution and its aftermath continue, in Marx’s words, to “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” rendering it both ever-present and unspeakable. Within families, questions about the revolution and the Red Terror often illicit no more than elliptical memories and illusive fragments. One tries to reconstruct from these a narrative of what it was like to live through, but the plot slips away.
For many Ethiopian Americans like myself, born in the last years of the Derg, Maaza Mengiste’s debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010) provided a narrative of the experience of the revolution that we had been seeking and never finding. As such, it was, at least for us, a kind of instant classic.
Mengiste’s family fled during the 1970s when she was just four and, like many in the diaspora, the author felt haunted by the revolution. In her novel, she stages the drama of it by focusing on a single family’s intergenerational struggle between a father, Dr. Hailu, and his sons Yonas and Dawit. Eschewing grand narratives, the revolution is shown playing out in the intimate sphere, pitting parents against children, dividing brothers, and sundering comrades. Absent the neat divisions of ideology, Mengiste refuses moralization and captures the daily accrued trauma of those years.
Mengiste’s recently published second novel, The Shadow King, offers a kind of prehistory to her first novel. Though it opens in 1974, most of its action occurs four decades earlier, when Ethiopia was occupied by Italy (1935–41). Set during this earlier moment, The Shadow King reassembles the story of national triumph over colonial conquest to pose the problem of history and memory anew.
When we first meet the novel’s protagonist, Hirut, it is 1974 and she is waiting in Addis Ababa’s train station amidst revolutionary uproar. She has come to return a box of letters and photographs to Ettore Navarra, a Jewish Italian soldier she encountered in the 1930s, when she and an unnamed cook (unnamed because she refuses to reveal her name) were servants in the home of Kidane, a nobleman, and his wife Aster. As the story moves into that era, we learn that even before the official outbreak of the invasion, war pervaded the home. The characters are suspended in tense relationships of jealousy, resentment, and suspicion. The cook secretes flyers dropped by the Italians which promise freedom from feudal servitude to anyone who joins the Italian side. Hirut’s prize possession, the gun her father used in the first Italo-Ethiopian War, is taken from her by Kidane, who is stockpiling weapons in anticipation of what’s to come. In retaliation, Hirut begins stealing from Kidane and Aster, amassing small objects which she buries in a hole by the stables. When Aster finds out, she beats Hirut mercilessly.
One strategy Mengiste uses to disrupt narrative patness is to set some chapters in the voice of a chorus. Following Hirut’s beating, for example, the Chorus supplies the episode with a violent prehistory by telling us that Aster was raped by her husband on their wedding night. In this and other scenes, the chorus illuminates how the brutality and violence of war are not only visited on Ethiopia from without but are also produced in the hierarchies of gender and class intrinsic to the imperial and feudal state.
Questions about the revolution often illicit no more than illusive fragments. One tries to reconstruct from these a narrative of what it was like to live through, but the plot slips away.
The novel’s chorus obviously owes a debt to Greek tragedy, and the novel is replete with references to the genre, opening with epigraphs from both The Illiad and Agamemnon. But in addition, Mengiste’s chorus embodies the Ethiopian tradition of the azmariwoch. According to literary scholar Dagmawi Woubshet, the azmariwoch are “itinerant . . . troubadours,” always at the margins of the social order but staples of social life; they roam the country entertaining large gatherings and performing at tej-bet, saloons that serve honey wine. Their simultaneous marginality and itineracy position them as astute commentators on Ethiopian life, “articulating the censored, demystifying the taboo, resisting easy consolations.” Like the azmariwoch, Mengiste’s chorus is a roving lyrical narrator who punctures the narrative with scenes from the past, overhears intimate exchanges, suggests alternative interpretations, and, above all, carries the burden of collective memory. “Sing,” the chorus demands. “Sing of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes,” forgotten and unnamed.
The chorus’s interruptions sit alongside other digressions. Returning to a narrative strategy used in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, some chapters are interludes about Emperor Haile Selassie, humanizing this larger-than-life persona who cast such a long shadow over twentieth-century Ethiopian history. Mengiste also offers brief histories of two minor characters, Jacques Corat, a Frenchman who sells arms to Kidane, and Leonard Navarra, Ettore’s father whose traumatic past becomes an avenue to explore the entangled histories of anti-Semitism and imperialism.
Mengiste’s fragmentary and punctuated narration prevents the book from being read as a heroic romance of Ethiopian resistance. In this way, Mengiste resists two opposing temptations. First, she refuses to offer a grand epic as replacement for the longstanding global ignorance about the fact that the first battle against European fascism was staged not in Europe but in Ethiopia. Second, she pushes back on a Pan-African tradition that has canonized Ethiopia’s exceptionalism as one of only two African country not colonized by Europe (Liberia being the other). For members of the African diaspora, Ethiopia grounded a vision of black emancipation, a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” But Ethiopian exceptionalism was put to work within Ethiopia, as well, as art historian Elizabeth Giorgis has argued, mobilized in the project of “reworking, replaying, and restaging [imperial] power.” It was directed at stabilizing an internally fractured society and grounded projects of modernization and centralization from the late nineteenth century to the postwar period.
The Shadow King takes aim at this nationalist, patriarchal script of Ethiopian resistance in several respects. Most importantly, it emphasizes the role of women in combat. As Kidane prepares his men for war, Aster insists on doing her part and organizes the women—the wives, daughters, and servants of the men—to serve in the war effort. At first they are allowed only grunt work. But soon Aster is leading the women into battlefields alongside the men. Soon, Hirut becomes the hero of the resistance when she recognizes an uncanny resemblance between a peasant musician, Minim, and Haile Selassie, who has gone into exile in England and left the country leaderless and demoralized. Together, Hirut and Minim invent the novel’s titular shadow king: sightings of this shadow emperor spark rumors that he has not abandoned his people, enlivening Ethiopians and confusing the Italians. Through appeals to a supposed Solomonic lineage, the real Haile Selassie sought to canonize himself as a kind of god-king, and as such his body was always highly staged, a screen onto which was projected competing desires and aspirations for the modern state of Ethiopia. The Shadow King disentangles these two kings, the real and the mythic, offering short interludes of Haile Selassie in England paralyzed by inaction while Minim and Hirut’s shadow king participates in the myth-making that is central to war.
In the African diaspora, Ethiopia grounded a vision of black emancipation, a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.’
Through Ettore’s photographs, The Shadow King also explores themes of how the outside world has depicted Ethiopia. Photography first arrived in Ethiopia with another imperial venture—the 1868 British military expedition—and images of Ethiopian “barbarism” would be key to Italy’s case for war. Ettore, whose nickname is Foto, has been charged by the Italian military with capturing Italy’s triumph. Describing Ettore’s photo of a hanged prisoner, Mengiste writes, “What is plain to see: a neck arching horribly, the spine distended, a mother’s son pinned against a ripe afternoon sky.” Looking closely, we “also see him, too, at the edge of the frame, the taker of this photograph, the thief of this moment, there he is, almost out of view, made visible in the show stretching toward the elevated feet.” Rather than an absent, anonymous onlooker, Ettore is cast into the photograph. An image meant to glorify Italian conquest simultaneously indicts the photographer.
Ettore is, however, also a tragic figure, a man conscripted to an imperial war by a country that refuses to acknowledge him as a citizen. As he shoots images of the conquered, he hears word that Mussolini’s government is restricting Jewish freedom of movement and removing Jews from university positions.
As in her first novel, Mengiste generously humanizes all her characters. Each one is given a back story, a way of understanding the wounded pasts that have culminated in this particular drama. But to eschew straightforward binaries of good and evil is not to evade indictment or forgo the burden of responsibility. When, at the end of novel, Ettore finally appears at the train station to collect his box of photographs and letters, Hirut can see “he expects pity.” “I’m sorry,” he musters, “as if that is an apology, as if those are words strong enough to pull the ripped seams of her together and hold her intact.” She does not accept. “Go away,” she demands. “Leave my country now. . . . You’re not welcome in this place.”
She had come to the train station not because Ettore had a right to his belongings. Instead, she hopes that returning the photos will work as a kind of exorcism: “to rid herself of the horror that staggers back unbidden . . . to give up the ghosts and drive them away.” How to be free of the ghosts that haunt, yet remember the past? How to acknowledge the presence of the past without being imprisoned? These are not quandaries specific to Ethiopia, but they ring loudly and insistently throughout the country’s twentieth-century history. They remain questions for contemporary Ethiopia, which is once again in the ferment of crisis and possible transformation.
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Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. She is the author of the forthcoming novel (September 24, 2019), The Shadow King, called “a brilliant novel…compulsively readable” by Salman Rushdie. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by The Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and other publications. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Creative Capital. Her work can be found in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Granta, The Guardian, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and BBC, among other places. Maaza’s fiction and nonfiction examines the individual lives at stake during migration, war, and exile, and considers the intersections of photography, memory, and violence. She was a writer on the documentary projects, GIRL RISING and THE INVISIBLE CITY: KAKUMA.