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  • Articles by Sonali

    Book review: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

    Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King, shortlisted for the 2020 Booker prize reclaims a piece of Ethiopian history. In 1935 war is looming and Mussolini’s forces have crossed the Mareb River in the 2nd Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The Ethiopians launched a counterattack and surprisingly, women, including Mengiste’s own grandmother, also fought in the conflict.

    The story begins in 1974 with the central character Hirut on her way to Addis Ababa train station carrying a metal box containing photos but it quickly reverts to 1935 when she becomes a housemaid for Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, and his wife Aster. Hirut was an orphan and Kidane was known to her parents when they were alive. Aster resents Hirut’s presence in her home.

    Hirut is the underdog in her role as a maidservant and our sympathies are aligned to her. The depiction of the other characters isn’t as straightforward. Aster is harsh in her treatment of Hirut but brave and charismatic in inspiring the womenfolk to support and join in the Ethiopian resistance. ‘Who remembers what it means to be more than what this world believes of us?’

    Kidane leads the Ethiopian resistance while feudal emperor Haile Selassie finds solace in listening to Verdi’s opera Aida (based on the story of an ill-fated Ethiopian princess who reminds Selassie of his deceased daughter). But according to Kidane the role of Aster and the other women should be limited to carrying water, getting supplies ready and tending to the wounded. In fact Aster and Hirut spend most of the book doing just that until Hirut has an idea which leverages her status.

    The Ethiopian resistance is on the brink of collapse without their leader Emperor Selassie (who is now in exile in Bath with his family) when Hirut recognizes a physical resemblance to him in Minim, a peasant musician. Minim is dressed up to look like the Emperor and from a distance he is a Shadow King, helping to boost the peasant army’s moral. Hirut is appointed as his guard.

    Later, when both Hirut and Aster are captured and held prisoner, Mengiste provides us with insights into the mind-sets of Italian colonists through the portrayal of the brutal Colonel Carlo Fucelli and war photographer, Navarra Ettore.

    Ettore’s role, under the command of Fucelli, is to photograph and record the war atrocities against the Ethiopians. Ettore is afraid for the safety of his Jewish parents back in Italy at the hands of Mussolini’s regime. Fucelli offers to protect Ettore’s Jewish identity in return for his continued loyalty. Ettore begins to regret his role in the conflict.

    The book’s scope spans from a domestic setting to scenes near and on the battlefield. The battle scenes, when they finally arrive, are written with a sense of trepidation and a pace missing from the rest of the book. The Resistance fight with full hearts but are poorly-equipped for battle bearing rudimentary weapons compared to the modern warfare and chemical weapons used by the Italian army.  

    Mengiste compares the story of the war to an epic Greek tragedy by including a Greek chorus and mentioning Greek poet, Simonides. But there isn’t much mention of Ethiopian culture in the book (only the teff flour which Hirut sifts on the veranda) which might have helped enrich the story and lighten the generally bleak mood.

    There are descriptions of photographs in the book bringing back to life events and experiences. For instance there is a picture of La Cleopatra the steamer ship that transported the soldati from Naples to Massawa in Eritrea. There are photographs of the prisoners who suffer at the hands of Colonel Fucelli and these descriptions are heavy going. The novel in its grittiness has been compared to the work of writer Toni Morrison.

    The Shadow King is too long, the poetic prose style written in the present tense is jarring at times and the female warrior angle does not gather momentum as promised. Hirut and Aster do display fortitude and courage though. Overall, the characters are credible, representing a cross section of Ethiopian society and the story is coherently written and often poignant. What is striking is the continued fervour of the Ethiopian Resistance in supporting a regime that didn’t serve its interests. The novel captures a forgotten era in Ethiopia’s turbulent history.

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