There are several strong contenders out there for Ethiopia, but Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was one of the first to catch my eye. I wasn’t the only one to like the sound of the critically acclaimed debut novel – the day after I finished it, Bradley stopped by the blog to say he was reading and really enjoying it. Clearly the book was a popular choice.
Drawing on the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, which forced Mengiste’s family to flee Ethiopia, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze traces the fall out of national events in individual lives. The narrative focuses on the family of an eminent Addis Ababa doctor, Hailu, who is struggling to keep his terminally ill wife alive against her wishes and who fears that his youngest son Dawit may be the next wounded revolutionary brought into the hospital for him to treat. At the start of the novel, Hailu has cast-iron confidence in his sense of right and wrong, born of years of making life-and-death decisions; yet, as society unravels around him, the lines begin to blur and when a horrifically tortured girl is brought to him to be patched up, Hailu finds his old certainties crumbling.
Like A Long Way Gone (my Sierra Leonean choice) the novel contains some of the most extreme descriptions of physical violence going. From brief glimpses, such as the pregnant woman ‘pleading at the foot of a man with stones for eyes and a plunging bayoneted rifle in his hand’, to extended scenes, including the interrogation of the small boy Berhane, the book bristles with outraged testimonies to the cruelty of its era – many of which will stay with readers long after they turn the final page.
Mengiste’s writing is excellent throughout. Perhaps the best proof of this for a child of the 1980s like me is the way that she manages to bring home the famines that ravaged rural Ethiopia throughout much of the final decades of the 20th century – and flooded Western TV screens, almost normalising images of extreme hunger for an entire generation. Through the eye-witness accounts of Dawit’s friend, Mickey, Mengiste cuts through the complacency that time and familiarity breed to shame readers with the horror of what happened once again:
‘This is how a man tills his land: behind cattle that are tied to one end of a plow that he uses to dig and lift and turn the ground. He holds a stick in one hand and the end of the plow in the other. At the end of that stick is a rope that he uses to whip the animals when they tire from the hot sun and the lack of water and simple hunger. A man works like this every day, every month, year after year, behind his cattle, his hand attached to a plow that has dug its own imprints into his calloused palms. He speaks to no one but himself, he hears nothing but his own slavish grunts as he pushes his plow into dirt, willing a crop to grow from unforgiving ground, praying daily for more rain. But it didn’t rain in 1972 in the north, my friend, and the farmer had no crops. The rains did not come as they should, and when the rains failed, the crops failed, and when the crops failed, the farmer grew hungry, and when he grew hungry, his cattle also grew hungry, because a farmer will feed his cattle before himself. When the cattle began to die, the farmer gathered his family and tried to walk to the nearest village, the nearest aid shelter, the nearest anywhere where he could hold out his proud hand and beg for food. But everyplace he went was the same as what he had left. They are starving here in Wello, Dawit. They are starving in Tigre and Shoa. We have lived in the city and we have forgotten about these people.’
Mengiste stretches these observations over a finely crafted plot, like canvases on a frame. Drawing in each character, the story moves from conflict to conflict, ratcheting up the tension with every chapter. I found myself gripping the Kindle in fear on several occasions – particularly in the scene where the soldiers come to search Hailu’s house for Dawit.
This solid structure means that the book can take the weight of the many larger questions its author heaps upon it. We find ourselves engaged in religious debates about where the line between accepting God’s will and working to ameliorate your situation should be and political reflections on the conditions needed to effect a revolution. In addition, we witness the events that can turn friendship into hatred, and discover a range of unsettling facts about life in post-revolution Ethiopia – such as the bullet fee families had to pay to receive the body of anyone shot by the authorities.
This is the sort of book that has the power to seem to stop time while the hours fly past. Gripping and thought-provoking, it sweeps you along to the final pages with just the right mix of emotional engagement and historical context. I’ll be adding Mengiste to the post-world watch list – I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (Vintage Digital, 2010)