Kidane, the military leader in “The Shadow King” remarks to his men that the Italians “have come to rewrite history, to alter memory, to resurrect their dead and refashion them as heroes.”
And so the women fight and author Mengiste brings to light a forgotten and ignored piece of Ethiopia’s famed resistance against Italy. “I see you. I will always see you” the author remarks in the novel’s acknowledgements to the women of Ethiopia who would not let themselves be forgotten. The novel does not shirk away from the violence of not only war but of the Ethiopian society for women. Early on in the story, Kidane’s father notes that “somewhere, a woman is always weeping” because no matter who the victor is in a conflict, the mothers, daughters, and sisters bear the brunt of loss, injury, and death.
As the story unfolds, the Ethiopians fighters notice that one of their own bears a striking resemblance to the Emperor and decide to dress him as a “shadow king” in order to inspire the surrounding towns to mobilize and actively fight against the invaders. With periodic chapters imagining the helpless emperor in England, it quickly becomes apparent that he is less a king than his countrywomen fighting back in Abyssinia. Later in life, having survived not only a cruel stint as a prisoner of war but the war itself, Hirut realizes that “we were the Shadow King. We were those who stepped into a country left dark by an invading plague and gave new hope to Ethiopia’s people.” "Plague" is an apt description for the Italian invaders as Mengiste lays bears the range of horrifying atrocities committed from searing mustard gas attacks to the ritual tossing of women and children prisoners off of a cliff. These acts are all captured and framed through the eyes of Italian photographer/reluctant solider Ettore. While his commander Fucelli orders him to document these horrors, Ettore readily acknowledges his guilt as he recalls the words of his father: "we must all suffer our consequences."
Finally, I can’t end this review without remarking on the talent of author Maaza Mengiste. I first read her debut novel “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” last year and was struck by her writing’s beauty. Her talent has continued to grow and it’s evident as she pens stunning lines like:
“The sun highlights the hints of henna in Aster’s braided hair. It splashes a glow across her cheeks. Her eyes are liquid in the bright light.”
“[Selassie] stands beneath a soft drizzle that feels like a weeping sky.”
“But she cannot know that grief cradles at the beast of cruelty, and it hungers for more, and she is for the taking.”
*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
**See our 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 Reading Lists.
Read my review of Mengiste's other novel: "Beneath the Lion's Gaze"
"Prevail" is a comprehensive history of Ethiopia's fight against Italy, my review of it is here.
23-4 “What’s lost is gone, my child, what is lost makes room for something else.” Berhe to Hirut as she mourns her rifle’s loss.
34 “Hirut recognizes for the first time that some memories should be barricaded by others, that those strong enough must hold the others at bay.”
89 “They have come to rewrite history, to alter memory, to resurrect their dead and refashion them as heroes.” Kidane on Italian motives as they seek to avenge their loss at Adua in 1896.
93 “He stares as if he wants to charge, as if he understands the camera’s weakness. As if he already knows the difference between what one sees and what is true. He is the only one whose mouth turns up on one side in both a smile and in mockery.” Aklilu, lover of Hirut in one of the pictures.
101 “The sun highlights the hints of henna in Aster’s braided hair. It splashes a glow across her cheeks. Her eyes are liquid in the bright light.”
112 “She is one woman. She is many women. She is all the sound that exists in the world.” Aster as she implores the women to rally to support the their soldiers.
114 “We’re more than this...we’re more than this...we’re more than this...we’re more than this.” Aster’s words to her fellow women as she implores them to realize their destiny to rise above their station and society’s expectation to them.
116 “Who remembers what it means to be more than what this world believes of us?” Aster’s final words in speech to her fellow women.
119 “And so somewhere, a woman is always weeping.” Kidane’s father on the cost of war and death.
133 “There is nothing that can come from this but blood and more blood.” Ettore
139 “But she cannot know that grief cradles at the beast of cruelty, and it hungers for more, and she is for the taking.” Chorus as Hirut is discovered in camp with her stolen rifle.
168 “That the dead are stronger. That they know no physical boundaries. They reside in the corners of every memory and rise up, again and again, to resist all our efforts to leave them behind and let them rest.” Hirut considers death in war.
173 “Yibeqal. We’ve had enough.” Mussolini’s words that Selassie that repeats to himself as he resolves to fight.
191 “She once believed she belonged to herself.” Hirut after Kidane rapes her and Aklilu finds her unable to move.
214 “As soon as a country builds an empire, he says, it has to decide who is who.” Fucelli on Italy’s descent into nazism.
237 “All you have to do is sit on the horse, Hirut says to him. She has to stop herself from patting his arm. We will all stand in the shadow of your light, she adds, repeating what Aster told her: To be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun
272 “To kill: to make dead, to extinguish life, to murder. Ghostly apparitions have been trudging past him since the night before, motioning him back to Ethiopia: Haile Selassie, Jan Hoy, Teferi, we’re waiting. Where have you gone? Teferi, Haile Selassie, come home.” Imagined thoughts of the Emperor as he sits in England and hears of the Italian atrocities against women and children.
297-98 “We must all suffer our consequences.” Ettore’s father tells his mother as a baby.
298 “It is the land the carries our suffering when we die. It is the land that remains the same, no matter what we call ourselves. And what he meant, Lev would later learn, was this: that only soil will remember who we are, nothing but earth is strong enough to withstand the burden of memory.” Ettore’s grandfather’s advice to his son as they flee Odessa for Italy.
317 “She lets herself disappear until all that remains on that bloodstained bed is a girl remolding herself out of a rage.” Aster described after her wedding night but also speaking to the role of women in the society writ large.
318 “He stands beneath a soft drizzle that feels like a weeping sky.” Selassi described in England.
351 “Knowing only he will ever see the way hatred sways so easily between shame and fear.” Ettore as he watches the eyes of Hirut as Fucelli beats her.
402 “Every sun creates a shadow and not all are blest to stand in the light.” Minim, the shadow king as he returns to normal life following his service in the war.
423 “We were the Shadow King. We were those who stepped into a country left dark by an invading plague and gave new hope to Ethiopia’s people.” Hirut thinks as she hands Ettore the letter from his father.
428 “I see you. I will always see you.” the author in her acknowledgements to the women of Ethiopia who would not let themselves be erased.
6 Dead must be heard and known--that is the primordial call that Mengiste answers in this novel.
28 The memory of war and taking lives irrevocably changes one.
99 Aster mimics courage in order to foster it in her self.
119 The true cost of war is always born by women--no matter the victor--mothers, wives, sisters, lovers.
132 Ethiopians would purposely mispronounce Mussolini’s last name as: Mussoloni
180 Emperor’s command from abroad to Kidane to risk everything
190/226 In an awful rape scene (Kidane raping Hirut) shows further demarcation of class, power, worth, male dominance. His intrusion--his rape of her--forces her to vacate her own body. We later see her victory through indifference--through her detachment from the brutal act he tries to perpetrate upon her.
191 Aklilu’s love after the rape helps to restore her dignity as he feeds her.
219 More an observation: the sharp intake of air when Ethiopians speak
232 The notion of a shadow kings and shadow queens is rooted in Ethiopian and broader mythology and provides an arc of hope in the novel
241 Names of the emperor: Jan Hoy, Negus Nagast, Abbatachin, Haile Selassie, Ras Teferi Mekkonen, King of Kings--these names flow through the head of Hirut as she emerges of the bodygrad of the Shadow King
272 Italian horrors against women and children reach Emperor in England, where he is surviving in the shadows. In this case, the actual Emperor is perhaps the actual shadow king referred to in the book’s title for he is only the shadow of a ruler, impotent and powerless.
292 Jewish racism just provokes further descent into depravity as Ettore is left with what he deems to be little choice. This also shows that the evils are racism are a spectrum that eventually consumes everyone.
293 Even as the Italians toss Ethiopian children off the cliff to their death, they maintain their honor in the pronouncement of their names. They have a name!.
315 Wow, balance of societal order is ingrained in Hirut’s understanding of the world as she is appalled that brutality can reach the body of Aster (reminiscent of Coates’ notion of “the body” in “Between the world and me.”
410 The costs of war--Ettore’s life is eternally and irrevocably damaged and ruined.
Key References for Further Study
104 Astenagir--touted as better than khat for strength: https://botanicaethiopia.com/herbs/
313 Fucelli, the Butcher of Benghazi
Rape of Hirut parallel to Italy’s incursion into Ethiopia
Notion of memory