Ethiopian Fulbright scholar Maaza Mengiste on how we remember war and violence

Thursday, November 12, 2020 - 5:24pm

"The Shadow King", Maaza Mengiste's second novel, was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

"The Shadow King", Maaza Mengiste's second novel, was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Buy this photo
W.W. Norton Company

The author of one of the Guardian’s "10 Best Contemporary African books" has made a triumphant contribution to the literary world with her pre-WWII epic “The Shadow King.”

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, Maaza Mengiste remakes and rebirths Homeric mythology in 1930s Ethiopia, embarking on an evaluation of war, trauma and memory. Covering a lightly fictionalized Second Italo-Ethiopian War, Mengiste documents Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and the people’s resistance.

Usually war novels attempt to hold your heart and emotions hostage, harming you with an onslaught of devastating events. However, Mengiste’s novel is a beautiful and relatively non-traumatic read. Pulling from both history and Greek tragedy, Mengiste transforms her forgotten conflict into a new Iliad, complete with capricious higher powers, irresponsible kings and fighting women. By including mythic elements (repeated Greek chorus chapters, allusions, etc.), Mengiste helps muffle the dark topics native to wartime: war, rape, assault, extreme violence.

On one side, fascist Italy is ramping up their late imperialism. With better weaponry and technology, the Italians hope for an easy victory. However, Ethiopia is not an easy prize to be won, plundered and stolen. Out of necessity and national pride, Ethiopian generals and households rally for war, echoing the Greek Basileus (kings) who kept their oath to retrieve Helen of Troy in Homer’s The Iliad.

The epic begins with the main character Hirut fingering through a box of photos taken by an Italian war photographer. Through the pictures, Hirut and Mengiste recall trauma and violence. And it is through Hirut that Mengiste interrogates how one can physically survive battle and emotionally cope with its trauma. Hirut begins untouched and unmarred before the beginning of the war. She lives a small existence on the edge of an Ethiopian estate. Having lost her parents, she has seen little of the world beyond the estate she works on. Over the course of the novel, her naivete hardens and she evolves into a soldier. However, Hirut is an abnormal protagonist. Mengiste is not pracious with Hirut. Often, her narrative leaves Hirut behind to explore other, more interesting characters. In one scene, Hirut is pointedly ignored by two embracing characters. While another author might delve into Hirut’s feelings of rejection and confusion, Mengiste does not indulge Hirut. Hirut is not clever or particularly pretty. She is not the center of the story. By excluding Hirut’s feelings from the narrative, Mengiste signals that Hirut herself is tertiary to the larger tapestry of war, plunder and Ethiopia being woven. 

Menguste’s disregard for Hirut is brilliant. It’s one of the most daring literary choices made by an author in a long time.

Goodreads reviews reacted to Mengiste’s tactical disregard by taking umbrage, misinterpreting Mengiste’s distance from Hirut as negligence. Usually, main characters are celebrated or special in some way. Mengiste does not coddle Hirut or indulge her thoughts and hopes. Instead, Mengiste deposits the same opaque, archetypal figures from myth into her story. Just as you do not know Achilles or the Euripides’ constant thoughts, you are similarly shut out from Hirut’s perspective. Like Homer and Aeschylus, Mengiste makes you privy to Hirut’s primal rage and confusion but keeps her psychology a secret. She does this to cleave Hirut and the Ethipidans closer to legend. She forces the audience to observe and question the impact of violence and wartime.

If enduring is only one way through violence, how can we ensure that the violence doesn’t pillage our bodies and person? Is there a way to escape war physically and mentally intact? Are there metaphysical human conditions that get torn out of ourselves during wartime?

As a contrast to Hirut, Mengiste also follows Ettore, a Jewish Italian war photographer whose psyche and psychology is very clearly laid out. He is an invader on the other side of the war, commissioned to photograph the triumphant Italians. But within the war and the Italian front, he is unsafe. Anti-Jewish sentiment seeps from Italy into Ethiopia and Ettore is anxious and morally conflicted about the atrocities commited against the Ethopians. However, paralyzed by fear that Italy’s violence will be turned against him, Ettore tries to keep his head down as he documents the war. At his best, Ettore is uncomfortable. At his worst he is complicit. 

Whereas Hirut and her cohort become immortalized, Ettore remains desperately small and human, a witness to others’ greatness. If Hirut and the Ethiopians represent the subjects of the mythology, Ettore is the scribe. Continuously taking photos and documenting the war, Ettore keeps the themes of legacy and legend alive.

His photography facilitates the Second Italo-Ethiopian War’s transformation into a legend, using his camera and viewfinder to create main characters and sell a narrative to Europe and Ethiopia, producing propaganda and stories to sate curiosities.

Mengiste, through a variety of angles, transmutes her novel and national history into a myth. Whereas most myth retellings try to turn the myths into a novel, Mengiste does the reverse. She immortalizes the fighting females of Ethiopia in the form of lyrical prose. She constantly and cleverly embeds allusions and includes a Greek chorus in her novel, planting a consciousness of legacy and legend. Startling, mythic and vivid, Mengiste’s novel wakes up your senses without harming you.

Daily Arts Writer Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at elizyoon@umich.edu.


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