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  • Ongoing Repercussions
  • Jan Garden Castro (bio)
The Shadow King
Maaza Mengiste
W. W. Norton & Company
448 Pages; Cloth, $18.87

"It was a massacre!" Ethiopia's history and character take center stage in Maaza Mengiste's novel The Shadow King, which begins in 1974 but focuses on Italy's takeover of Ethiopia from 1935-41. Did the Italians drop mustard gas on whole villages, literally burning the skin off their bodies? Did Mussolini's Colonel in charge, Carlo Fucelli, murder Ethiopian guerilla fighters instead of putting them into the huge prison he built? In the novel, he forces masses of captured Ethiopian prisoners to jump from a high cliff to their deaths. At the same time, he taunts the remaining Ethiopian freedom fighters by keeping two of their women soldiers in a cage and humiliating and photographing them daily as Italian soldiers jeer: "She is a body crashing through restraining hands, spinning so wildly that Ettore cannot take a photograph. When the top of her dress is pulled down, she pulls it up. When she is pushed against the wall, she slides down to the ground. When the colonel comes to yank her upright, she grabs his legs to throw him down." Why was this holocaust not on my radar?

In the novel, the Italian photographer turns an image of the caged women into a popular (racist and sexist) postcard. Yet, ironically, photographer Ettore Navarra is secretly Jewish, and Jews are being rounded up in Italy, losing their jobs—and "disappearing"—so Ettore's days seem numbered even though he always obeys the Colonel's orders. Ettore's father Leo writes tortured letters to tell his son about his prior marriage, his first son, and his life before he escaped from Odessa to Venice and married Gabriella, but she realizes that the letters put Leo's and Ettore's lives in danger and she destroys them before Ettore can read them. The reader therefore learns more about Ettore's father's past than the son. Even though Ettore has no religion, the Colonel knows he was born Jewish and shields him. The Colonel also disobeys orders and keeps an Ethiopian mistress and her cook in the camp. One day Ettore receives one letter from his father; he treasures this, for he realizes he will never see his parents again. The fate of this letter is juggled in each of the four books of this novel; Hirut has it in 1974 as she goes to meet Ettore.

Hirut is the leading character in this four hundred plus page novel. She is a peasant, the daughter of Getey and Fasil, and she eventually marries Aklilu, but we never see the marriage or anything resembling a conventional life. We see her given as a servant to care for Aster when Aster is given to Kidane in marriage. We see the reasons why and the method by which Aster leaves a deep scar near Hirut's collarbone. We see Aster as somewhat spoiled and as an unwilling, innocent bride. We see Kidane as a male balancing the hurts he receives from Aster, his training as a soldier and a leader of men, and moments of kindness toward Hirut. Kidane has seen Hirut grow up, and he knew her parents. He favors her in part because of these long ties and in part since Aster has been cruel to them both. Hirut owns nothing but her father's rifle, which she hides and which Kidane takes away to give to a young man. Aster is jealous of Hirut's raw natural beauty and Kidane's kindness toward her.

The reader sees Hirut brutalized twice by Kidane. The second time, we see his frenzy and his hidden motives as Hirut fights him with every ounce of her being. Kidane's role in leading the Ethiopian forces to resist the Italians is huge, dangerous, and continues after the cities have been tamed into submission.

Even though Salman Rushdie blurbs that he "devoured" this novel in two days, it took me over two weeks to read this epic. The lush writing style memorializes each main character and interweaves the histories of each...


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pp. 27-28
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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