Review: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

A very ambitious book that is part novel, part history, The Shadow King explores a part of the 20th Century perhaps little-known to Westerners. I knew that Italy had invaded Ethiopia and that it was a prelude to the fighting that would break out globally in 1939, but that is where it sat for me, a curtain-raiser to the horror to come. Of course for those who lived it, the Second Italian-Ethiopian War as it is known (I had no idea until this book that there was a first) was horrifying enough.

The story begins in 1974. Hirut has travelled to Addis Ababa from rural Ethiopia to meet an Italian man, Ettore, who she knows from 40 years ago. She has letters that belong to him, and photos he took of her, inscribed with Italian, “una bella regazza. Una soldata feroce” (a beautiful girl. A fierce soldier). The relationship between them is intense but unclear. To find out its nature, we travel back those 40 years, to 1935, the eve of the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy under Mussolini.

Hirut, a young woman, a girl really, is a servant to Aster and her husband Kidane, who is preparing to lead Ethiopian soldiers against the Italians in the name of the Emperor Haile Selassie. There is complicated history between the three of them – Aster and Kidane’s son is dead; Kidane has obligations towards Hirut through her mother – which the novel unpacks at length. Meanwhile, the Italians encroach, crossing the border from Eritrea on September 2. Interludes show the indecisive mindset of the Emperor, who will eventually flee to the UK, leaving his soldiers to fight a guerilla war among the country’s hills and mountains. It is here, around halfway through, that the novel’s titular plot – that of the Shadow King – is hatched. A local peasant is dressed as the absent Emperor to inspire hope in the Ethiopians and fear in the Italians. Ultimately it will inspire women like Hirut and Aster to take up arms and fight alongside the men.

There is still more going on. We meet the Italians, the brutal Colonal Carlo Fucelli, Butcher of Benghazi, and his photographer, the Jewish Ettore Navarra. Then there are the ascari, the Africans who fight for the Italians, such as the enigmatic Ibrahim. There’s also a mysterious woman, Fifi, consort to the Colonel, who is not who she appears. Then there are regular interruptions of a chorus – the dead? – who give their omniscient perspective, and descriptions of the photos that Ettore takes, documenting the Italian invasion. Maybe it’s all too much, the family drama particularly leaning towards overwrought, but it certainly makes for a rich reading experience.

At its heart The Shadow King is a war novel, and it is the most potent depiction of conflict I have read apart from the Iliad, which itself is named throughout the novel (the Italians citing it as something of a foundational myth). Too often war novels get bogged down in strategy and movement, using characters like chess pieces. Mengiste instead chooses to hone in on key moments. The battle scenes have an elegance and energy to them that belies their violence. Scenes of war crimes – the Italians’ use of chemical weapons, a death camp, the punishments and retributions meted out by Italians and Ethiopians alike – strike the note of horror they must. War is not a simple thing, and Mengiste depicts it with the same lazer-like focus that Homer did in his account of the Trojan War.

Except, like Pat Barker did in her retelling of the Iliad, The Silence Of The Girls, the novel gender-flips the script, writing women back into histories they have been left out of. Mengiste explains that the book was inspired by her great-grandmother Getey, who served in the Emperor’s army. The novel explores how the love and labour of women supported the war effort, and how girls and women bore the worst of the violence, often within their own ranks. Mengiste draws on other depictions of Ethiopian women, particularly the Italian opera Aida, to illustrate how their stories have been captured and warped for foreign eyes.

Central to the novel also is memory and how it is preserved. Not just in minds, songs and national mythology, but bodies and objects. This a novel obsessed with the capturing of moments, made literal through photography. Like Sarah Sentilles in her exploration of art and war, Draw Your Weapons, Mengiste shows how art can be abused to do violence, and photography can be used to imprison people as easily as walls.

The writing is all movement and feeling, leaning towards abstraction, which sometimes leads to confusion. Rapid shifts in perspective – often half a dozen on the same page – and dialogue without quotation marks add to the disorientation, although neither feel like style for style’s sake. For instance, I struggled to understand a key moment when Hirut is taken prisoner by the Italians. But what it lacks in clarity the writing makes up for in immersion. Here’s Kidane charging into war, like Achilles on the battlefield:

First: a ringing in his ears, then the piercing clarity of stunned silence. The loud roar of an angry wind, then a bird’s melodic call. There is his chest, heavy as a boulder, and his legs moving light as feathers. As Kidane rushes down the mountainside into the gorge, he feels it all crashing through him: the ecstasy and elation, the sway between catastrophe and calm. The world slides free from his grasp. A tunneled path opens in front of him and soon he is racing past the chaos toward a slender figure in the waning light.

The novel is obsessed with light and shadow, which chase each other across every page. Only at length did I understand that at least part of this is a literal reference to the signaling method used by the Ethiopians, sending messages by reflection through the mountains and gorges.

For me this was an uneven read, even if the novel itself is tightly constructed. Some parts I had to slog through. But when it soars, it is really exciting. I’m looking forward to reading it again and understanding more of its power.

Gay rating: not gay

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