Maaza Mengiste wants to teach us about Ethiopia and pry our assumptions from our minds.
Maaza Mengiste wants to teach us about Ethiopia and pry our assumptions from our minds. With her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, and this September’s The Shadow King, she has sought to supplant outdated Third World images from the “We Are the World” days with narratives set in the country’s complex history of revolution, war and international meddling. Her first novel took place in the ‘70s when the military junta the Derg brought an end to the rule of emperor Haile Selassie. The Shadow King is set in 1935 during the second Italo-Ethiopian War, and challenges not only the casualness with which stories of resistance are generally reserved for white gazes, but the notion of who gets to be a hero as well.
To achieve this, Mengiste employs her considerable talent to craft a work of structural genius that allows her to fluctuate between the mythic and individual through prose so precise that she describes a battlefield and a servant’s quarters with equal sublimity. Selassie appears in “Interludes” where the melancholy he feels while fleeing his country is fair game for the author’s examination, while a chorus that would make Homer proud appears to explain the workings of the world and the histories of some of the novel’s characters. But to contain the vastness of this moment in time, Mengiste focuses on Hirut, a teenaged servant in the house of a nobleman named Kidane, and her evolution into a warrior.
Hirut’s mother helped raise Kidane, a close enough tie between servant and noble that he took in Hirut when her parents died. Kidane’s wife, Aster, does not care for this new addition to her household, seeing the girl as eventual competition for her husband’s attention. Aster is placated by an older, heavyset woman known as the Cook, who has been with Aster since she was a girl and attempts to show Hirut the ways of the household. Aster never loses her suspicions toward Hirut and robs her maid of her one heirloom, a Wujigra rifle that Hirut’s father used to kill Italians in the first Italo-Ethiopian War.
To fulfill Aster’s expectations, Hirut begins to steal objects from the house, and receives a whipping from her mistress for her crimes. This is the first instance in the novel of violence that befalls a female body, but an aspect that joins the female characters in a grim sisterhood. Kidane rapes Aster in a harrowing flashback and Hirut with some regularity once the war has made him a guerrilla commander and driven them all into the mountains. The Cook was beaten long ago for helping Aster attempt to escape her arranged marriage.
They all carry the symbolism of patriarchal violence that extends to the country as a whole after the war begins. Kidane sees the women around him as subordinates, refusing to extend the barest notions of equality he extends to his male soldiers despite the supporting roles they play in feeding and healing his forces. Aster, to her credit, trains the women in her charge to fight, including Hirut, despite the waves of animosity between them. Necessity presses them into service. Too many men have died and there are invaders to kill.
Hirut gets her chance when she discovers a peasant musician called Minim, which means “nothing,” who looks likes the exiled emperor. He becomes the shadow king, travelling the countryside to rally the conquered Ethiopians, and she becomes his bodyguard. She trains more seriously for combat, and when she imagines slashing her blade across and the throat of her enemy, she imagines herself killing Kidane.
The toxicity of violence is framed as a rite passed between fathers and sons and ruler to ruler to dehumanize woman on a personal level and whole races when writ large. The Italians invaded Ethiopia 40 years earlier and see the country as theirs. Mussolini and his fascists, personified in the character of prison commander, Colonel Carlo Fucelli, view the Ethiopians as subhuman, even mystical savages that can disappear into the landscape. After an assassination attempt in his camp leaves Fucelli humiliated and paranoid, he switches the construction site for his prison to a cliff. He orders his prisoners thrown over the walls, and has Lieutenant Ettore Navarra, called “Foto” because he carries a camera to capture the war, documents this inhumanity.
Navarra is a Jew who is learning that the machinations of the state are turning on his people and that his service to his country offers no guarantees when considered by fascist purity, so his view of who gets to be human is somewhat more evolved than his comrades. But, this doesn’t make him brave. In fact, the character embodies Mengiste’s great gift for creating the cinematic while avoiding overwrought spectacle. No one is superhuman here, but they are all made powerful through their flawed humanity.
We are used to stories of war that are told through the eyes of men, particularly the suddenly enlightened imperialist that realizes what he’s doing is wrong. The record is slowly being corrected, and those who have been erased from history are finally coming into focus. It often takes one instance of truth to start a cascade, and hopefully that is true of The Shadow King. In her author’s note, Mengiste explains that the inspiration for this book was her great-grandmother, who sued for her father’s gun, enlisted and went to war. So, correcting this record was a personal matter, but, to be clear, she does so without glorification. It’s a beautiful book, but one of violence and trauma. But, what she accomplishes here is a paradigm shift not only in terms of the subject of a war story but also how that story can be told. This is a tour de force that has given us Hirut, guard of the shadow king, a powerful and fascinating character that should extend to the zeitgeist one day if there’s any justice. May her example inspire more untold stories of the women who fought for their countries.