‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste

shadow kingTo be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun. You must respect his power to give you life and burn you alive. But when that particular emperor has fled the country and settled in Bath, England whilst the invading Italian army of Benito Mussolini occupies 1935 Ethiopia, morale needs to be boosted. So arrives Minim, an illiterate peasant, soft-spoken man with the strange name that [literally] means Nothing, but who has an uncanny resemblance to Haile Selassie.

With troops male and female, wealthy and poor, having responded to the emperor’s call for armed resistance and taken to the vast, untamed landscape, so Minim is presented on a white steed, uniform perfect, buttons polished, a red umbrella in place to protect the shadow king from the blazing sun. Flanked by two proud female warriors, reaction is electric and immediate among the people – word travels quickly and widely. The emperor is back.

But all that is to come – it’s more than halfway through Maaza Mengiste’s engrossing second novel before the shadow king appears. That particular idea is first mooted by Hirut, a young orphaned female servant from the home of Kidane and Aster. Hundreds of kilometres from their comfortable Addis Ababa compound, Kidane heads his own private army of farmers, servants and stragglers against the invading forces. Or at least he thinks he does. Aster proves to be no shrinking violet, refusing to accept her expected position behind the front lines. She gains strength as the narrative unfolds. From hapless mother grieving her young dead son to an all-powerful warrior queen with Hirut following in her wake, Aster takes no prisoners. The Shadow King is as much the celebration of the role of female warriors in the Ethiopian resistance – and not just as nurses, cooks and buriers of the dead – as it is about the invasion by a wannabe European superpower looking to make up for the defeat in the 1890s of the first Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

Juxtaposed with the unfolding narrative of life in the isolated camps of the resistance and the power struggles between Kidane, Aster, Hirut and other members of the private army is that of Ettore Navarra, a member of the invading forces and the official photographer of his regiment. The building of Italy’s new empire is to be recorded for posterity. Navarra has his own personal struggles to contend with – not least the order from Rome for all Jewish personnel in the military to be returned to Italy.

It’s an extraordinary story as Mengiste explores what it means to be at war, a primitive war that is fought with antiquated weaponry and surprise hand-to-hand combat in unwelcoming terrain in sweltering heat. But this is no ordinary story of war. Fractured narratives switch from violent clashes to Haile Selassie listening to Aida whilst preparing to flee; from the sensitive Navarra forced to whip a captured prisoner to within an inch of the man’s life to a vindictive and jealous Aster keeping Hirut in her lowly place. On the way, Mengiste explores personal struggles of identity, ideas of family and parenthood with its sense of need and belonging –  from the emperor and all of his children (that is to say, all Ethiopia) and the paternalism of the Italian commander-in-chief towards his men to Kidane’s loss of his son, Hirut’s loss of her parents and Navarra, as an only child, separated by a great distance from his.

Lyrical and profound, it’s a novel of power and strength – even if, on occasions, it slips into overly-lyrical descriptions (particularly early in the novel) which result, at times, in a sense of literary fatigue and boredom. But with chorus-like interpolations adding to the mix, The Shadow King is original and, overall, propulsive as it gathers steam. In Hirut, we find a fierce young woman of charisma and single-minded determination balanced by the soul-searching uncertainty of Navarra. The novel is littered with strong yet complicated three-dimensional characters. Whilst there is no question about the morality of colonial invasion, Mengiste avoids the simple demarcation of African = good, European = bad. Kidane may lead his men for greater glory, but he is privileged and a rapist: Colonel Fucelli is deeply cruel but cares nothing for Rome’s anti-semitism.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, The Shadow King lost out to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.

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