Monday, May 07, 2018

Ethiopia: Beneath the Lion's Gaze, by Maaza Mengiste

Set around the period 1974 - 1978, when famine and rebellion led to the overthrow of the Emperor Haile Selassie and the establishment of a military dictatorship, this novel focuses on Hailu, a doctor, and his family in the capital of Addis Abbaba. At the onset of the book Hailu's wife Selam is in hospital, dying. His elder son Yonas is married to Sara, and they have one daughter, Tizita. His younger son Dawit is a student,heavily involved in clandestine political activity.

The members of the family are all deeply affected in different ways by the death of Selam. Sara mourns her as the replacement for her own mother. Hailu immerses himself in his work. Dawit becomes estranged from his childhood friend, Mickey, who has joined the military, for the security of a paid job. As the political situation unravels, all the members of the family, in their different ways, are faced with unthinkable choices.

The novel is quite grim and brutal in parts. It is lightened by lyrical passages which describe dreams or visions, including those of the dead and dying. Ethiopia has a long Christian tradition - the emperor (or King of Kings) was supposedly a descendant of the Biblical King David, the monarchy of Ethiopia being the oldest in the world - and this tradition is reflected in the beliefs of the characters.

As I read further into the book, I was more and more riveted by the writing, and found it hard to put down. The period described in the second half of the book is one of brutal genocide. The ending is somewhat inconclusive - those remaining are safe, for the meantime, but on finding that the military government (the Derg) lasted around 13 - 14 more years after the conclusion of the novel, I couldn't help wondering how long that safety would hold.

Maaza Mengiste writes in the author's note at the end that it is a fictionalized account based on real history. Only the emperor and his prime minister are given the names they had in real life. Other characters are fictionalized including many of the military leaders. So the dilemmas and actions taken in the book are not actual events that took place, but nevertheless they represent the real difficulties that a wide range of people faced at the time.

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Abbaba in 1974 and left with her family at the age of four when they fled the Ethiopian Revolution. She spent the rest of her childhood in Nigeria, Kenya and the United States, and now lives in the latter country where she teaches creative writing.

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