Ethiopian-born novelist Maaza Mengiste has just burst onto the literary scene with her magnificent novel “The Shadow King”. (An increasingly large number of African, and/or African-born writers, mostly women, are astonishing the literary world with their fiction; “The Old Drift”, by Namwali Serpell, is another example from 2019, surely to be on most everyone’s best of fiction list for 2019). Such novels are what was once called “total novels”, as they’re epic in sweep, long and highly developed, in which entire worlds either fall apart or come into being (Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction most comes to mind; “The War at The End of The World” and “The Green Door” seemed backdrops while I was reading “The Shadow King”).
What Mengiste creates is both fiction and myth, or how stories become metastories and metanarratives and myths by which people live. Ethiopia was invaded twice by Italy, in its desire to become another imperial colonist; this novel takes place right before and during Mussolini’s second invasion of that (very beautiful) country. The warrior Kidane and his volatile wife Aster are just married (she’s fifteen); we meet them during their wedding festivities, which end with a bedroom/first night scene so evocative, so powerful and painful, that the reader must understand the rage that develops that night for Aster, who’s had no choice in this marriage and whose desire for freedom–at nearly any cost–is made clear while losing her virginity; the cook (known only in this novel as “the cook”), a formerly free woman endentured into slavery to this family, will try to escape with Aster, but both women are trapped within the mores of the culture into which they are born (no women are free). Hirut, a slave girl, is the other main character; her mother and Kidane grew up together, and that’s how Hirut comes to be their slave: power and gender are determining factors, as , of course, money and class are. Kidane’s a complex character, sympathetic to Hirut, frustrated by his wife Aster.
Kidane will lead groups of men into battle against the Italian invaders, but much to his surprise, horror and anger, Aster insists on coming to war with him, as a warrior, not just as cook/support staff, and Kirut ends up as a woman warrior, too. Mengiste is not unsympathetic to all the Italian invaders; one of her most fascinating characters is the Jewish Italian photographer attached to the invading Italian troops, who’s under orders to photograph all the men, women and children who are captured and put to death–a fake prison’s built to fool the Ethiopians, while those captured must leap to their deaths into a mountain gorge. (Said photographer will lose his Italian citizenship during this war, because he is Jewish). Mengiste is magnificent in portraying the brutality of the Italians ,under the command of an officer known as “The Butcher of Benghazi” for the excesses of his sadism (the reader should know that these soldiers are from real history).
The Italians are partly afraid of the Ethiopians, whom they see, of course, as less than human, “primitive”, and their kinship with their own land (Kidane knows every inch of that terrain). The sadistic leader is having an affair with a “native” woman, a fascinating beauty caught between her need for money and her love of her homeland and people. During the first conflict–being privy to the preparations amongst Kidane, Aster, Hirut and other local soldiers, men and women, the reader’s understanding of the characters of each grows; the dynamics between and amongst these three (Kidane repeatedly rapes Hirut, and doesn’t understand her ‘lack of gratitude’). These are all highly complex characters. Hirut and Aster are captured by the Italians and are humiliated repeatedly (in all the ways one can think of: imagine women soldiers being captured by most any male army). But the spectacle of these (and other) women soldiers running down a hill into the Italian troops is astonishingly beautiful writing, and we see how the author is beginning to mythologize these two into nearly goddess stature (what culture doesn’t do this?). Hirut is the stronger of the two women, once in captivity; their days locked in a small room are described with horrifying detail, until they are freed by a combination of elements I’ll leave to the readers to discover in this epic novel of such power and greatness.
The Emperor Haile Selasse appears often in this novel; he leaves his country as soon as the going gets tough, and his state of mind is brilliantly captured by the author, as he sits powerless in his office listening to “Aida” over and over again. It’s Hirut who notices the physical similarity of one of their soldiers to The Emperor, who becomes “The Shadow King” of the title: he is dressed as The Emperor so that villages of people see him and rally to the Ethiopian cause. This subplot is fascinating (imagine being the peasant who temporarily becomes Emperor; Aster teaches him the manners and mores of The Emperor).
After Hirut and Aster are freed in an amazing series of sequences, the reader becomes aware of not only their bravery, but, repeatedly of the rage that is each woman’s defining motivator; each has felt trapped in the roles Society has decreed for her, and neither is willing to accept her lot: this feminist underpinning of the novel is its greatest strength, as we watch these two trapped souls come into her own power and become the legends of history each becomes. Since we live by stories (Joan Didion maintains that without them, we’d all go mad), the exact truth of the stories matters perhaps less than how the real characters become legends (recent archaeological inquiries in Israel have brought doubt upon the existence of a real King David, for example, and I’ve got news for those archaeologists: the narrative’s power is far greater than the pottery shards they may or may not discover).
Maaza Mengiste is quite the writer; her narrative continues to build and build; it’s nearly cinematic in scope, a story worthy of any origin story of any culture, a story of such great sweep and immense power that it’s a true page turner. The reader will be left astonished at the bravery and unleashed anger of women who’ve been wronged and are determined to rectify those circumstances. “The Shadow King” is breathtaking.