“The Shadow King” by Maaze Mengiste: when more is less

This ambitious novel, partly inspired by the author’s own great-grandmother who insisted on going into battle armed with her father’s rifle because her brothers were too young to fight, recalls Mussolini’s long-forgotten invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 to expunge the humiliation Italian soldiers had suffered unexpectedly at the hands of native warriors forty years earlier. Since this time, the Italians are equipped with planes, tanks and mustard gas, it seems inevitable that they will win.

The drama is played out largely from the viewpoints of two main characters: the young Ethiopian girl Hirut, and Jewish Italian soldier Ettore, who takes on the role of war photographer.

The orphaned Hirut has been taken into the household of warrior leader Kidane, ostensibly because of his fond memories of her mother, but arousing the jealous of his wife Aster, already quite disturbed through the recent death of her infant son, and repressed frustration over being forced to submit to her husband’s will. As propaganda leaflets fomenting rebellion against Emperor Haile Selassie fall from Italian planes, and an invasion fleet lands in nearby Eritrea, Kidane musters his fighters, but the women wish to do more than merely provide the food and bandages.

Ettore’s father exhorts him to use his camera to “bear witness to what is happening. Make living your act of defiance. Record it all. Do it relentlessly….” but living with the fear of exposure under an anti-semitic regime lays Ettore open to blackmail by his sadistic senior office Fucelli, who forces him to photograph mutiliated soldiers and abused captive women for propaganda purposes. In the process, his work becomes perverted by an obsession with the artistry of a hanging body, or a form plunging into a ravine.

In a cast of complex but generally underdeveloped characters, only the brutal Colonel Fucelli is almost unremittingly stereotyped, although even he can blame a cruel father for his warped nature.

The shadowy presence of Haile Selassie hovers in the background, portrayed as a weak figure who takes refuge in listening endlessly to Aida, eventually fleeing to the safety of Bath in England. His loyal subjects resort to the tradition of using a “shadow king” or body double of the Emperor to restore the morale of a population willing to be conned. Which of these two men is the real “Shadow King”?

The key to understanding this novel lies in Salman Rushdie’s description of it as “lyrically lifting history towards myth”. Yet in imitating the style of “The Iliad” or Greek tragedies like “The Oresteia”, chorus included, the novel often has a stylised, theatrical quality which makes the characters less realistic and moving , and also tends to objectify battle into a troubling kind of art form.

The style is intensely visual, with hardly a description failing to mention how the quality of the light and how it falls. There are continual references to the photographs poignantly or grotesquely capturing the moment. Yet all this is with diminishing effect, eventually counterproductive, as the novel becomes simply too wordy, too repetitious, too overblown, too contrived, too implausible, too long. The bludgeoning from incessant, overwrought sentences which on analysis often mean nothing, wore me down.

There is great potential in the interesting multi-stranded theme and I admired the author’s depth of research and appreciated her passion. Although I was left feeling frustrated by a flawed novel in which so many possible insights are obscured, it has at least motivated me to find out more about Ethiopia.

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