Rating 4 stars
Hirut, a woman with a long scar “that puckers at the base of her neck and trails over her shoulder like a broken necklace”, waits in Addis Ababa station for a man she hasn’t seen in almost 40 years. They are connected by a secret, one from history, involving Mussolini and Emperor Haile Selassie.
I’ve wanted to read The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste’s novel about the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in the years before and during the Second World War, since it appeared on a list of books to read in the Guardian a year or so ago. It was longlisted for the Booker last year, and a recent mention of the book on Lisa’s Six Degrees chain for April reminded me that I still hadn’t read it.
It took me a while to read because I needed frequent breaks from the way it made me feel. It’s beautifully written, but the subject matter is tough. The toughness of the story also made it difficult for me to fully engage with the characters. There was a distance between me and them that I couldn’t close, and I can’t work out if it was cultural or the way Mengiste wrote them as emotionally shuttered, even though they all have strong feelings. I felt an essential contradiction in all of them that kept me at arm’s length from really knowing them.
The story begins with main character Hirut waiting for her rendezvous in 1974, then cuts back to 1935 and the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s forces from Eritrea and Somalia. Hirut is a young woman working for Kidane, the son of her mother’s employer and a man who promised to take care of Hirut should anything happen to her mother. Both of Hirut’s parents died the previous year, and she found herself a servant on Kidane’s estate. Kidane’s wife, Aster, hates Hirut, and their relationship is described as the painful and venomous thing it is by Mengiste.
Kidane is an officer in the Ethiopian army, serving under Haile Selassie. At the start of the book, he is mobilising troops and searching out guns to arm them with. He takes Hirut’s father’s gun from her, one of the few possessions she has. This is a turning point for Hirut and it directly impacts the rest of the story.
The book is an opera on the page, with acts, interludes and choruses cutting between perspectives. We see Haile Selassie watching newsreel footage over and over, learning about the invasion of the country he rules by a nation Ethiopia has already repelled once before, and, later, obsessively listening to Aïda to try to understand what to do next as a leader. We learn about Aster and Kidane’s wedding night, about how young Aster was, and how unprepared, and the bond between Aster and another key character, known only as the cook, is gradually revealed. We discover the nature of the relationship between Hirut’s mother and Kidane’s father and how that colours Kidane’s view of Hirut. We are introduced to Ettore Navarra, the Italian soldier who, almost four decades on from the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, summons Hirut to a meeting in Addis Ababa.
Aster emerges from her husband’s shadow as a force of nature, a warrior woman who is certain of her power. Hirut, too, is strong and unwilling to let those with more societal power take her personal power from her. This is a book about the way women are too often overlooked and dismissed by men. It has much to say on the role women play in war, Ethiopian women in particular. There is the patriarchal expectation that women will follow behind the male troops, singing their encouragement, tending to their wounds, and the patriarchal arrogance that allows women who are seen to disobey to be beaten to a pulp or raped to teach them their place. For all that the two main women in this story are strong, the book isn’t always an easy read. Its portrayal of relationships as expressions of ownership crosses the genders. Aster, despite her hatred of Kidane and her yearning for freedom from the marriage, sees him as her possession, her husband over whom she has rights, making her jealous of the other women he has relationships with, no matter that those relationships are mostly abusive. Kidane sees any woman that he feels desire for as his possession, to do with as he wishes, with no consideration for consent. Both of them abuse Hirut in different ways. Later in the book, in the face of a punishment whipping, one of Kidane’s men tells him that he’s not the first rich man to try to teach him his place. There is a comparison to be made with the way the invading Italians treat the Ethiopians they have been sent to vanquish. To triumph over an enemy requires the denial of their humanity.
The scenes of warfare show the Ethiopian troops at a disadvantage against the modern weapons the Italians use. Not just more and better tanks and guns, but poison gas as well. The Italians are enabled in their invasion by Haile Selassie’s son-in-law, and their propaganda hits home among those Ethiopian subjects who believe that the Emperor is an inadequate leader, better replaced by an Italian regime, unaware of the reality of occupation by people who view those same Ethiopian subjects as sub-human.
When the Italians declare victory, annexing Ethiopia and creating the province of Italian East Africa from it, Eritrea and Somalia, Haile Selassie flees and what remains of Kidane’s fighting force is turned into a resistance unit. The official war is over, but conflict continues, with Ethiopian troops ambushing the invaders, resisting their occupation. Navarra is present in the moments following ambushes, when Fucelli, his Colonel, tortures and kills any Ethiopians captured. It is Navarra’s job to use the camera he has brought with him on this war trip, as though he is a tourist, to document the torture and the death. Fucelli’s demands on Navarra increase in the aftermath of a rebel attack that threatens Fucelli’s manhood; the photographic documentation of the Italian occupation becomes a form of personal revenge for Fucelli. The photographs Navarra takes and the ones he accepts from others in trade are among the contents of the box Hirut carries to her rendezvous with him four decades later.
The way Mengiste describes the photographs, that suggests that they are, in a way, art, is discomfiting. Photography is art; the framing, the lighting, the use of shadow, the choice of focus. These photographs are documents, too, though; evidence of barbarism, of the sickness of war. Reading Mengiste’s words made me wonder if her research had brought her into the presence of such photographs. In her acknowledgements, she doesn’t give much away. The book is a work of fiction, she says, with a compressed timeline and altered events. Her years of research led her to stories she didn’t know existed. Her author’s note talks about her great-grandmother who went to war and inspired this novel. The archivist in me wants to know what her sources were, what the evidence is that she has altered and compressed for her fictional purposes. The dehumanising nature of war, whether it is nation against nation, state against community, or white against black has always resulted in the documenting of cruelty, so I don’t doubt that there are photographs taken by Italian soldiers showing the war crimes they committed in Ethiopia, just as there are photographs taken by American soldiers, for example, at Abu Ghraib, and photographs taken by British police officers of brutalised Black bodies, such as those taken of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. When you are instructed to think of people as an enemy, they cease to be human. Perhaps the lack of humanity in the historic record is what has seeped into the story and what caused the distance that I felt between me and the characters.
The Shadow King of the title is appointed to boost the standing of Kidane’s resistance troops among the local villagers, who are tired of being punished by the Italians for their presumed support of the Ethiopian fighters. There was a tradition for Ethiopian leaders to have doubles in times of conflict, who would act as figureheads along the line, since the true commander in chief couldn’t be in more places than one at once. Hirut notices the similarity between Minim, the peasant musician who soothes and entertains Kidane, and Haile Selassie. Kidane forces Minim to act the part of Emperor.
I was distracted by the name Minim. In Amharic it means Nothing. From music I know it as a note held for two beats. From palaeography, I know it as a short vertical stroke in handwriting. I looked up other definitions. Minim is also a drop of water, the smallest worker in a colony of leaf cutter ants, a dwarf, anything considered very small, in fact. In the West, we claim its derivation from Latin, but Amharic is a semitic language, part of the family with Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew and Maltese. It made me wonder whether the Romans acquired it from elsewhere.
Navarra is a character full of that essential conflict I mentioned earlier. His family is Jewish, although non-practising, and therefore subject to Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws. As news reports from home tell of the worsening situation for Italian Jews, Navarra anxiously waits for letters from his mother. His lack of faith and his belief in himself as Italian not Jewish seems to hold him in stasis, as though the criminalisation of an entire race of people isn’t really happening. His relationship with Fucelli is a corrupting one. Fucelli knows Navarra is Jewish and promises to protect him from the requirement to declare him as such in return for Navarra photographing the atrocities Fucelli commits. The nearest hint we get of the horror Navarra feels is in the letters he can’t send to his parents outlining what Fucelli expects him to do juxtaposed with the advice Navarra’s father gave him, as he left home for the war, to build what is good and what he can carry in his heart forever. And yet, he does what is demanded of him without any real sense of a moral dilemma. When a letter eventually comes from his father, explaining the loss of faith, revealing a family secret, the photographs that Navarra takes are cast under a different light. The dehumanising act is transformed so that the victims’ humanity is restored and the perpetrators of the violence are reframed as the dehumanised ones. Navarra names himself “an archivist of obscenities, a collector of terror, a witness to all that breaks skin and punctures resolve and leaves human beings dead.”
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m living through a time where it is suggested and not convincingly denied that the current UK Prime Minister said in response to the threat of a second, more deadly wave of the coronavirus, “No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” that Mengiste’s book made me feel so very weary. Weary in the knowledge that human beings are generally comfortable with punching down, as long as they are the ones doing the punching. Relentless news about corruption, xenophobia, abuse in multiple forms doesn’t combine well with a book that contains little in the way of joy.
There is a climax, a victory of sorts, although it doesn’t feel like anybody really wins, burdened as they are by what they have done and what was done to them. The epilogue returns to 1974, a few months before the Derg staged the coup that abolished the monarchy and deposed the Emperor. There is a resolution of sorts, a line drawn to hold the past in its place, to make true the refrain of the book: “There’s no escape but forward.”
This was an incredibly difficult read in numerous ways, not least because it doesn’t feel as though we are moving forward from our imperial pasts. Largely because the architects and beneficiaries of those imperial pasts can’t be honest with ourselves about the harm done or how embedded it is in our identity. Towards the end of this book, I saw a Tweet by Bree Newsome, the film maker and activist who, in 2015, scaled the flagpole in the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse to remove the Confederate flag, that rang true with part of how this book made me feel: “Racism is foundational to white identity. It has nothing to do with the words we use or don’t use to help white people understand their own culture.” In the Tweet thread, Newsome links to an article I missed, about the origins of whiteness and what it means now.
If I felt weary reading this book, I can only imagine how weary Ethiopians, other Africans, Caribbean people, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, First Nation and all the other people who don’t fall under the invented category of white must feel, living the enduring consequences of white lust for power. At work, in our majority, handwringing whiteness, we are grappling with the idea of decolonising history. It’s long overdue, but to do it well, we need to take a long hard look at how we got here. Mengiste’s book is one of a number of necessary viewpoints.