Sometimes a literary work is so well executed that it becomes a song, a long and elaborate song that brings into being an entire period and sheds light on the resilient spirit of a people. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste is such a work. It is an unhurried work, laboriously constructed, in simple but powerful and illuminating prose, and it is the song of a people who were victims of a period when the world, and in this particular case, fascist powers, had gone mad.
The novel tells the story of Ethiopia and how its people once routed the Italian army. Years later, out of vain pride and prejudice, the Italians under the dictatorship of Mussolini, decided to avenge that humiliating defeat. The Italian campaign was meant to be punitive, meant to teach the Africans a lesson. To achieve this singular goal all means of violence and scourge were employed. Chemicals and poisonous gasses were used. The sheer brutality of the campaign is vividly captured by Mengiste in prose that gradually coils around the reader like a rope. Scene after scene of intense beauty and horror are almost minutely described.
The novel is very ambitious. In a conversation that I had with Mengiste at the Aké festival in Nigeria in 2015, she told me she had found the structure, the way to write the novel that had troubled and misled her for years. Novel writing is like a search for a ray of light in a dark space: mishaps could sometimes lead to great illumination and steps that you think are certain can lead to a dead end. But Mengiste finally found her way.
The novel does not only confine itself to the perspectives of the Africans, the Ethiopians, but also incorporates the Italians. There is a Jewish character, Ettore, who is at odds with the purpose of the war because in his birthplace, Italy, Jews are being rounded up and killed. Through Etorre’s eyes and the eyes of other Italians, we see Ethiopia and the invasion, and we see the Ethiopian collaborators – because there are always collaborators in war.
The beginning of the novel is very much uneventful. It takes place in the household of one of the main characters of the novel, Kidane, a man from a line of warriors, and with access to the emperor, Haile Selassie. The emperor himself is portrayed as a loving and caring man, but fragile and helpless in the face of the onslaught. We see him grappling with family issues, we seem him longing to listen to Verdi’s Aida rather than face the terror that’s descending on his empire. At one time, unable to coordinate the efforts of his people, and certain of imminent defeat, the emperor absconds. All the fragility and fears of a ruler are felt on these pages.
Meanwhile his people, the Ethiopians, march on under the leadership of Kidane and his army, and a shadow king who looks like Haile Selassie, a king created to inspire the people. They’ve survived attack after attack, and their courage and their determination are unstoppable.
The novel is influenced by the Greek tragedies, but more precisely by the African way of storytelling, with responders who take up aspects of the storytellers' words, repeating them over and over again, less the audience, the readers, forget. It gives the novel that songlike aspect.
In the shadow of the men and an absent king, there are the women, the real heroes of this novel: the strong-willed Aster, Kidane’s wife, and the indomitable Hirut, their servant or 'maid'. Hirut was brought up in Kidane’s home after the death of her parents, but the relationship between her and Astres, the mistress of the house, is strained because she believes that Hirut has eyes for Kidane. Or that Kidane has eyes for the domestic worker. But Hirut wants to be like her father, the warrior who fought in the first war with the Italians, and who had taught her to handle a rifle and to shoot. The interaction between these three characters form the core of the novel, and it’s a troubled relationship. One day Aster, tired of being a wife who sits and waits for her husband, leads the women to war.
The novel offers a deep insight into the workings of heritage, the role life has accorded people and how it is difficult to escape from such roles, even during a period as cataclysmic as war. But it’s also the story of the women who are as determined as the writer who brought them to life, unyielding and unbending in the face of failures and fear.
The emperor might have left but is present in his shadow, in the form of a man who looked like him and in the form of the women like Hirut who refused to yield and who lived to tell the story of one of the greatest tragedies in recent memory.
Maaza Mengiste is one of the six writers shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The announcement of the winner will be made on 19 November, 2020.
Vamba Sherif is a Liberian/Dutch writer. his debut novel Het Land van de Vaders was published in 1999. his last book, De Zwarte Napoleon, came out in 2015. His books have been translated in several languages.