I saw Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King constantly on social media for a while, and then in 2020 it was also on the Booker Prize shortlist. I took that as a sign that it had to be a book worth reading. I would actually highly recommend The Shadow King , but maybe not as a vacation read, because be warned: it’s a book about the Italian military invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and there are horrific scenes of murder and rape throughout.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve read Francesca Melandri’s novel Everyone But Me, in which an Italian protagonist learns that her father was a fascist and colonialist who lived in Ethiopia. She realizes how Italy’s politics, and much of her father’s life, had passed her by. The Shadow King occupies itself to a greater extent with the Ethiopian perspective than the Italian. It is about anti-colonial resistance and the role of Ethiopian women, some of whom became soldiers. Thus, the novel tells of gaps in European and African history-telling and how an exceptional situation temporarily softened rigid boundaries between gender roles in Ethiopia.
Against the expectations one might have for a war novel, the book begins with a domestic scene: Hirut, an orphaned young woman – or rather teenager – has recently begun working for Aster and Kidane as a maid. My sympathies initially leaned toward the vulnerable young Hirut and toward Kidane, who seemed to protect her from Aster’s jealousy and lapses. But when the Italian troops arrive, domestic conflicts must be put on the back burner for the time being. Kidane gathers men around him and they ready themselves to go to war ill-equipped. Aster mobilizes the women who stay behind and they follow the men to provide support. As the Italian troops begin a game of cat and mouse with the Ethiopians, pre-existing conflicts in the Ethiopian camp flash back into life. As if the violence of the colonialists weren’t bad enough, there are brutal incidents and shows of force between Kidane, Hirut, Aster and others – and sympathies shift.
Other fragments interrupt the war scenes: Ettore, a Jewish soldier from Venice who has become a war photographer, sees his life and that of his parents in danger as Mussolini’s policies turn against Jewish people. Haile Selassi’s critical soliloquies show a statesman driven into a corner, so that he decides to abscond to England. But he remains in Ethiopia – unbeknownst to him – as a shadow king. A chorus conducts events in between. Imaginary photos of Ettore serve as a further basis for the piecemeal gathering of historical excerpts from the war and the humans whose fates it determines.
Mengiste manages to create a complex collage that can best be explained with the words she puts into Haile Selassie’s mouth: “All that is worthy of life is worthy of remembrance. Forget nothing” (143). Her novel is a book against forgetting. Thus, she does not shy away from a short chapter called An Album of the Dead, which lists with a brief description all those innocent and nameless Ethiopians, whom the vicious Italian Colonello Carlo Fucelli pushed off a cliff into the abyss – to death. Mengiste writes about cruelty and humanity.
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