- The Conscript: A Novel of Libya’s Anticolonial War by Gebreyesus Hailu
As the first Eritrean novel, and one of the earliest written in an African language, The Conscript by Gebreyesus Hailu represents a significant contribution to the African literary tradition. This translation from Tigrinya into English by Ghirmai Negash brings the slim, fascinating novel to a broad readership so that we might appreciate its value as a complex and moving reflection on Eritrean involvement in the Libyan anticolonial war. The novel, written in 1927, offers a fierce critique of Italian colonialism, which probably explains why it was not published until 1950, well after Italy relinquished control of Eritrea in 1941. The narrative chronicles the experiences of Tuquabo, a young man who, in the opening chapter of the book, joins the Italian colonial army as a conscript, “resolv[ing] to go to Libya to fight as a hero and gain fame” (7). We follow Tuquabo and the other ascari as they board a train in Asmara and travel across the countryside to the port of Massawa, where they embark on a journey across the Red and Mediterranean Seas, visiting ports in Sudan and Egypt, before arriving in [End Page 202] Libya. War offers only violence and death, and Tuquabo’s intensifying disillusionment gradually changes into anticolonial nationalism. Experiencing the brutality and racism of the Italians and witnessing the determination of the Libyans, he questions his reasons for fighting on the side of the colonizers and, at the end of the novel when he returns to Eritrea, feels deep regret about leaving his home and family to fight as a mercenary for an imperial power.
Negash explains in his concise and informative preface to this translation that the author, Hailu, a member of the colonized African elite, attended mission schools in Eritrea and in 1924 traveled to Italy to study at the Ethiopian College in the Vatican before returning to Eritrea to become the vicar general of the Catholic Church there. This brief biography helps to contextualize the novel’s expression of what Simon Gikandi has described as “the double perspective” of African writers and intellectuals who lived and wrote during the late colonial period.1 Gikandi notes that the pioneers of the modern African literary tradition “identified very closely with colonial culture and its institutions, even as they opposed the destructive practices of imperial rule and fought for African political rights.”2 Hailu’s novel critiques the violence and inhumanity of European colonialism while at the same time endorsing certain material and cultural achievements of European modernity. The Italian poet Leopardi is quoted at length, for example, and, about Asmara, the narrator remarks, “The coming of the Italians made it perfect, with well-made streets and roads lined with trees on each side” (11). When the boat on which the conscripts travel reaches the Suez Canal, the narrator informs the reader that it was “the ingenious Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who thought up the idea of connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea by building a waterway,” again marveling at a product of European modernity (20). These interjections by the narrator call attention to his double perspective, reminding us of the institutional location of Hailu, who was at once inside and outside of Italian colonialism, simultaneously enabled and constrained by it. Given this, there seems no contradiction in describing the cruelty and racism of the Italian commanders while also praising the Italian poet Leopardi.
The narrator’s direct addressing of his audience, much like the proverbs and songs that appear in the novel, also seems a conscious attempt to integrate African oral tradition into the form of the realist novel. The narrator turns to a Tigrinya proverb to capture Tuquabo’s father’s pride in [End Page 203] his son’s bravery (5) and later quotes from a traditional song to articulate the grief Tuquabo feels as he leaves his country (15). These and other voice-like interjections imitate the African storyteller’s speech, infusing the novel with...