Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste


Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought:

When the Italian army invades Ethiopia in 1935 and Emperor Haile Selassie is forced to feel to the England, a Shadow King takes his place, a young lookalike whose guards are female soldiers. This the the little-known story of the women who fought alongside men in the second Italian-Ethiopian war – women including the author’s own grandmother. Ordinary women, peasants and servants, with no previous training, who took up arms to defend their country against an army larger and far better equipped their own.

But if the outward battle is against Italian colonialism, the women are forced to fight on many fronts – against the inequality and patriarchal nature of Ethiopian society of the period, and against sexual violence inflicted by their own sides.

Mengiste has written (in this article published in Lithub in September 2019) about the photographs she has been collecting for years – photographs taken for the most part by young Italian soldiers who thought they were embarking on a foreign adventure. One in particular gave birth to the principal character, Hirut.

“She is in her teens and her hair is pulled away from her face ... I imagine that she is ... doing her best to focus her attention on something besides the intrusive photographer.”

Hirut begins the story as a lowly servant in the household of a wealthy family connection, someone with no power or agency of her own, despised by the lady of the house, treated with intermittent kindness by the master. The only thing she has of her own is a gun, given to her by her late father, who made her promise to keep it always. But when the Italians re-invade the country, it is taken from her, without consultation. She, like all the other women, is expected merely to prepare supplies for the soldiers. It doesn’t occur to anyone that they might fight. But the reality of war against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy changes everything.

In the early stages of the war the battles, scene mostly from a male point of view, are written as if they were part of a Homeric saga – full of heroism and grand gestures.

“Their high-flung arms. That quivering beam of light curving through the field like a god’s mocking defiance. See Fisseha fall, that last son of Samuel. See Girmay stumble, that only child of Mulu [...] Listen to the wind vibrate with spear and flung stone and hoarse shouts and agonised cries.”

The later battles, when Hirut is in the thick of it, the tone changes to a more personal experience of horror:

“Soon she is thrown into the sweep of dust clouds, other figures pushing against her, around her, to make their way to the enemy. She feels like she runs alone, a solitary figure balancing on slippery rocks. Then she trips over grass and find herself helplessly caught in her own momentum.”

The men in the novel – particularly those , both Italian and Ethiopian, who come from their ruling classes – have been conditioned from childhood into a kind of unseeing cruelty – a cruelty capable of even recognising itself for what it is. As Mengiste writes (again in the article from Lithub), "I have come to realize that the history of women in war has often been contested because the bodies of women have also been battlefields on which distorted ideas of manhood were made.”

In the novel, the photographs are taken by Ettore, an Italian soldier whose father is a non-practising Jew. As Nazism closes in on his family back home and census forms arrive from Italy to identify Jewish soldiers, Ettore continues to follow orders to document the atrocities committed by his commanding officer, in the hopes that obedience will save him.

Ettore may himself be a victim, but Mengiste never allows him the easy luxury of forgiveness – he must take responsibility for his own choices.

Finally, a series of Interludes runs through the novel - brief scenes in which the Emperor Haile Selassie listens repeatedly - obsessively even - to a recording of the opera Aida, which tells the story of an Ethiopian princess captured by Egyptians. The way he chafes against the story of how she falls in love with her captor feels like a plea for Ethiopia to tell its own stories.

A powerful novel about war and colonialism, patriarchy and violence, written from a too-rarely seen point of view, that of a Black African woman.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

Avoid If You Dislike: Close up descriptions of war and sexual violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Daro wat with Injera (Ethiopian spicy stew with fermented pancakes)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

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