January 18, 2020 (GMN) - Set during Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, this absorbing novel spotlights the African women who went to war.
The eponymous king in Maaza Mengiste’s second novel does not feature until a good halfway through the narrative, and then inappropriately shadowy fashion. He is Minim, a “soft-spoken man with the strange name that means Nothing”, one of those who has answered the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s call to arms provoked by the Italian invasion of the country in 1935. But Minim has an unexpectedly propitious quality; a close resemblance to Selassie, now in exile in Bath, that can be used to reinvigorate popular confidence that the European colonialists can be defeated. Dressed in a makeshift uniform and sitting on horseback with a red umbrella across his saddle, Minim has only to appear in the hills so recently dominated by Italian troops to strengthen his subjects. As he is instructed by the comrade who has helped to hatch the plan: “To be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun. You must respect his power to give your life and burn you alive.”
A different novel might put this curious interlude at its heart; fiction as written by a popular historian such as, say, Ben Mcintyre. But in Mengiste’s story which draws on her own family history, with a grandfather who fought against the Italians shadows and echoes abound and multiplies, ensuring that although its participants are faced with clear and present danger, they continue to be intimately bound to the generations and individuals that have gone before them.
When the book begins, we imagine that its arena might be small, and confined. We are in a compound, in which tensions seethe between Hirut, an orphaned young woman who has recently joined the household as a sort of maid of all work, and her mistress, Aster. Hirut’s arrival has been effected by Aster’s husband, Kidane, an old friend of Hirut’s parents; Aster is both suspicious of their past connection and grieving deeply for the child she and Kidane have lost. Initially, the reader’s sympathies seem clearly directed: towards the vulnerable Hirut and protective Kidane, and away from the capricious and occasionally malicious Aster. Their battles, worked out in a series of claustrophobic rooms, including the minute bedroom that Hirut shares with a cook and the more luxurious quarters given to the elegant Aster, are painful and without the prospect of resolution.
But circumstances change, and rapidly. In Eritrea and Somalia, Italian commanders are mobilizing their forces to reprise their attempts to control Ethiopia, first thwarted in the 1890s; now, under Mussolini’s mythologizing aegis, they are ready to try once again. For the Ethiopian men, such as Kidane, who gather their own forces to repel the invaders, that first conflict is still present in their minds, and its reprisal presents them with a chance to avenge their fathers’ defeats.
What, though, of the women? In a scene of extreme marital disharmony near the beginning of the book, Aster makes clear her refusal to wait at home for her husband’s return. Subsequently, she dons his tunic, jodhpurs, and cape and sets off to war in blazingly described fashion, taking Hirut with her. The story that follows predominantly one of the cat-and-mouse game between Italian and Ethiopian forces is interspersed with fragments: descriptions of the documentary photographs taken by a young Venetian soldier, Ettore; brief glimpses of Selassie in Bath, as he contemplates the potential destruction of his rule and, by way of comfort, devotes himself to listening to the opera Aida; and the interjections of a Greek-style chorus. Alongside the story of Hirut, Aster and Kidane come that of the Jewish Ettore, exiled from his family and only latterly learning of his father’s own exile from his native Russia. As he waits for letters from his parents, he is confronted by the news that Jewish soldiers will be required to register their ethnicity and begins to receive reports of growing antisemitism at home.
It is both a reasonably conventional narrative there is plenty of action, detailed description and a focus spread between the principal characters and a subtly unpredictable one. History and modernity are juxtaposed in the factual asymmetries of warfare (the Ethiopians must rely on outdated and often malfunctioning weapons and have no way of long-distance communication beyond running messengers). They are also set side by side in the modes of consciousness that all the characters experience. While their instincts for battle, whether attack or defense, seem rooted in the primal, they are constantly having to adjust and update their viewpoints. For the Italians, the building of a great Roman empire must be captured on film; for the Ethiopian resistance, gender lines must be blurred for a greater chance of success.
It was only later that Mengiste discovered that her great-grandmother had taken her father’s gun and gone to war herself.
In her afterword, Mengiste notes that recollections of the war tend to cohere around the heroism of the outnumbered Ethiopian soldiers, “stoic and regal like my grandfather”. It was only much later that she discovered that her great-grandmother had taken her father’s gun and gone to war herself one of the women whose stories “even today have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents”. Her achievement in The Shadow King is to bring to life those women and to depict them as dynamic entities, their capabilities, limitations, and beliefs evolving under duress in as fully complex away as those of their male counterparts.
The Shadow King is published by Canongate (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.