The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste | Historical Fiction | Canongate | 428 pages | Review by Aishat Yusuff
At first glance, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King appears to be a story about Hirut; a recently orphaned woman trying to adapt to life at the household of a trusted family friend, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. However, a closer look reveals that The Shadow King is the story of what people’s lives look like during war. While the novel opens with an epilogue set in 1974, most of the story is set in 1935 Ethiopia, around the start of the second Italo-Ethiopian war. Although the book gets its name from Hirut’s initiative to disguise a gentle peasant as the Emperor when Emperor Haile Selassie flees the nation, this is not the main focus of the story. Instead, Mengiste focuses on portraying the lives and emotions of the characters before, during, and after the war. Mengiste renders every single character, invader and resister alike, with great nuance, making it difficult to pass easy judgment. I think Mengiste does this to humanize the Italian invaders in this story in a way that they did not humanize the Abyssinians in reality.
Mengiste describes, in poetic detail, the emotions of the lead male characters, on both sides of the war, when they remember Italy’s first invasion. For men like Kidane, the looming second invasion is his chance to protect his country, but also to make his father and ancestors proud. For men like Carlo Fucelli, an officer in the Italian army, the second invasion is also a chance to rewrite history and redeem the victory his ancestors lost in the first war. Hence, for both men, war means fear but also thrill. It doesn’t then come as a surprise when Kidane vehemently refuses military aid from Hirut and his wife, Aster. He could not fathom women taking up arms and not once does he think of their safety as an excuse for his refusal.
This highlights how patriarchy and misogyny are so intricately woven into our societies. Similarly, Carlo, who has grown accustomed to faccetta nera, a song which was composed by Renato Micheli and that heavily sexualizes the Ethiopian woman, could not wrap his head around native women soldiers invading his camp. “What are these women? What do you breed in this country?” were his stunned reactions.
Thus, both Hirut and Aster defied Kidane’s and Carlo’s notions of how Ethiopian women should behave, especially in times of war. Hirut’s consistent refusal to part with her dead father’s rifle stresses her resolve to protect her land from the invaders and at the same time, break free of the role her society traps her in. Similarly, Aster, despite constantly being called ‘fragile’ repeatedly stands against Kidane’s refusal to allow the women to take up arms to protect their lands. In the face of these seemingly minor rebellions, Kidane and Carlo resort to violence to subdue the women; whether she resists or not, a woman in war is a woman doomed.
Language is an integral part of The Shadow King. Writing in English does not stop Mengiste from incorporating words and slang that were rampant in the communities during the war. Words like ferenjoch (white people), abbaba (father), ferenji (foreigner), arbegnoch (patriot), and soldati (soldier) appear frequently. This gives the reader a sense that they are stepping into to the characters’ everyday lives during that period. Even the deliberate mispronunciation of Benito Mussolini’s name, which may have been seen by an outsider as a sign of Ethiopian savagery, is described as a sign of Ethiopian resistance. Although Mengiste humanizes the Italian characters in this story, she still makes their atrocities apparent and, therefore, does not absolve them of that guilt.
Mengiste also includes stories about female warriors and empresses who fought in earlier wars, who put characters like Kidane in their place. The Ethiopian women are not simply pretty black faces; they fought for their country and dismantled the Italian’s idea of what women should look like. Hirut’s development is the most profound in the story. She goes from being insecure about her strengths and resilience to acknowledging and embracing them, despite the ills of the war she suffers.
Another interesting thing to note is the way Mengiste reclaimed the story of the Ethiopian princess, Aida, from the Aida opera. In this opera, Princess Aida was an Ethiopian woman who fell in love with an Italian soldier. She had her father, the King, and her brother imprisoned to keep her love safe, thus resulting in the capture of her land. Unlike Aida, Hirut does not acknowledge or reciprocate the feelings Ettore, an Italian photographer, has for her.
The Shadow King is a book that gives life to those who have been written out of history and reclaims history for the Ethiopian women on whose backs their country’s sovereignty lies. Mengiste does a beautiful job of giving every character a significant voice, regardless of the side of history they fell on. She does this with a very poetic and lyrical style of writing. In addition, Mengiste utilizes every inanimate object in the book to enhance the storytelling: the mood, the sceneries, and the sounds all contribute to the story just as much as the characters. Like most stories about war, Hirut’s story does not reveal itself early on in the book. The slow pace of the book mirrors how time and history do not always move as quickly as we may want it to.
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