Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste #Ethiopia
Publisher: W.W Norton & Company
Published: 11th January 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5 Stars
An epic tale of a father and two sons, of betrayals and loyalties, of a family unraveling in the wake of Ethiopia’s revolution. This memorable, heartbreaking story opens in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1974, on the eve of a revolution. Yonas kneels in his mother’s prayer room, pleading to his god for an end to the violence that has wrecked his family and country. His father, Hailu, a prominent doctor, has been ordered to report to jail after helping a victim of state-sanctioned torture to die. And Dawit, Hailu’s youngest son, has joined an underground resistance movement—a choice that will lead to more upheaval and bloodshed across a ravaged Ethiopia. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze tells a gripping story of family, of the bonds of love and friendship set in a time and place that has rarely been explored in fiction. It is a story about the lengths human beings will go in pursuit of freedom and the human price of a national revolution. Emotionally gripping, poetic, and indelibly tragic, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze is a transcendent and powerful debut.
In the scramble to colonise Africa, Italy invaded Ethiopia and managed to occupy the country for 5 years before they were defeated (Oh Hail Ethiopia!). The Solomonic Dynasty managed to wade them off propelling Haile Selassie to Emperor, King of Kings, the Lion of Judah and the Messiah of the Rastafarians, God incarnate.
Haile Selassie ruled for 60yrs before he was overthrown in 1974 by the Derg - a Marxist-Leninist socialist militaristic government - and this is where the novel opens. In his last days as Emperor, he is a man besieged – alone and abandoned. Ethiopians are angry. Drought has ravaged the country, killing close to a million people with little intervention from the emperor. This quiet discontent quickly morphs into civil unrest, resistance and disobedience that will see him overthrown in a revolution and then smothered to death.
On the sidelines of the ensuing chaos, is a family unraveling. There is Haile, the medical doctor who benefited from the emperor’s education program and is conflicted on his stance in the resistance, his wife Selam, ailing and willing his family to let her die, and their two sons, Yonas – the realist and Dawit - the idealist. As this family unraveling reaches its peak with the death of Selam, they are thrown into disarray just as Haile Selassie is overthrown, sending the country into complete chaos with the Derg turning into a fascist, ruthless and dictatorial socialist regime that resulted in the deaths of close to a million Ethiopians and a further descent into anarchy and repressed freedoms.
Mengiste does a stellar job with this book, using Hailu’s family as a microcosm of Ethiopia. She beautifully captures the lives, hearts, decisions, conflictions, suffering and violence that besieged the nation during the Red Terror era and how a revolution can turn on its people. The prose is melancholic but solid, endearing the reader to the characters in all their shortcomings and flaws. In one instance, we get to hear Haile Selassie in first person as he seems to reckon with the revolution and its implications for him. Mengiste firmly places us in his mind and thoughts during his last days, and though fictional, it felt so real and profound.
Mengiste makes you appreciate Ethiopia with its rich intricate history and modern day complexities. It’s a tired narrative that Africa and Africans are and have been ungovernable with simplistic thought processes and models of governance because Ethiopia - one of the most ancient civilizations in the world with such sophisticated dynasties dating back to King Solomon – shows the fallacy of these notions.