Maaza Mengiste's debut novel renders the fall of Haile Selassie and Ethiopia's reign of terror under the communist Derg in exhaustively researched, painstakingly imagined detail, writes Amy Rosenberg. Beneath the Lion's Gaze Maaza Mengiste Jonathan Cape Dh74 Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 - or, as he was officially called, King of Kings, Elect of God, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia - was a tiny man of mammoth stature. The only black leader of an African country in his time, he was so small that he employed a cushion bearer to follow him around and place cushions beneath his feet so his short royal appendages would not dangle when he sat down. Nonetheless, he maintained a massive aura of power and influence. His army defeated Mussolini's, after all. He was said to have descended from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. To the world's million or so Rastafarians, he was, and still is, considered an incarnation of God. A full list of his achievements and grand gestures would stretch for pages, but to recap some highlights: he secured Ethiopia's entry into the League of Nations, modernised many of its institutions, gifted lions to other heads of state, penned his country's first written constitution, and annexed the neighbouring nation of Eritrea.
It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Selassie's popularity began to decline. At the time, droughts and famines were killing off hundreds of thousands of his people, and he was caught on film feasting with aristocrats and using his country's aeroplanes to import caviar and champagne. Such a character is a gift for a writer, and Evelyn Waugh, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Nega Mezlekia and others have explored aspects of Selassie's life and personality in print, mainly in the form of reportage. Now, in her ambitious debut novel Beneath the Lion's Gaze, Maaza Mengiste has imagined the details of his violent end. An American writer who was born in Addis Ababa and lived there until the age of four, Mengiste describes Selassie's dethronement, imprisonment and death from the point of view of the emperor himself, telling his tale as one small part of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, interweaving it with a close examination of a middle-class family's dissolution. In doing so, Mengiste strives to create what reportage typically cannot: a deep representation of the inner lives of people experiencing violent upheaval.
Hailu, the head of the family around which the novel centres, is a respected doctor famous for having once resuscitated an unconscious man others had left for dead. Selam, his wife of over 30 years, lies on a gurney dying of congestive heart failure. Their elder son, Yonas, is a history professor whose wife, Sara, stays at home with their four-year-old daughter. Their younger son, Dawit, is a student at the university where Yonas teaches.
It doesn't take long for political tension to intrude. Hailu removes a bullet from the back of a rioting student; Dawit becomes involved in the rioting himself; Yonas suffers anxiety because his university has closed. The two brothers' clashing personalities lead them to respond to both their mother's illness and the encroaching war in opposite ways: quiet, docile Yonas prays while wild Dawit agitates with fellow revolutionaries. For Hailu - dignified, remote, already lost at the thought of life without his beloved Selam - the changing realities are stupefying. "He could not account for his wife's deteriorating condition and this relentless drive of students who demanded action to address the country's poverty and lack of progress," Mengiste writes. "He... could do nothing but sit and gaze in helplessness at an empty hand that looked pale and thin in the afternoon sun." He also feels powerless to keep his sons from antagonising each other; after Selam dies, father and sons begin fully to fall apart.
They're not the only ones: the entire country is unravelling. Nevertheless, Selassie suffers from such profound delusion that he barely reacts even when his prime minister resigns; he is able to remain calm because "in the distance, beyond his window, he heard the restless growls of his caged lions, and he understood what was happening was right". Not long afterwards, in a scene borrowed directly from history, army officers march into the royal palace and demand his abdication of the throne - thereby ending of an ancient monarchy whose roots reach back to the first century AD. Selassie, 82 years old at the time, merely thanks his usurpers, stating that he will oppose neither revolution nor his own deposition. He is carted off to jail in an old Volkswagen Beetle, and he dies in prison almost a year later, under circumstances still ambiguous but intriguingly imagined by Mengiste.
The majority of Mengiste's narrative unfolds in the years following the emperor's death, from 1977 through 1978, during the period known in Ethiopia as the Red Terror. It was then that the Derg, the military group that had gained support for the coup by promising a peaceful transition from monarchical rule to a social-democratic system, carried out oppressive tactics so horrific that recent trials in Ethiopia have found the former leader of the group, Mengistu Haile Mariam, guilty of genocide. (Mariam has been living in exile in Zimbabwe since the Derg fell in 1991, and has been sentenced to death in absentia by Ethiopia's high court.) Interested more in power than in the commonwealth of the people, and encouraged by financial support from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and North Korea, the Derg twisted communist ideals into tyrannical tools, executing, purging, imprisoning and torturing hundreds of thousands of people who resisted the new regime.
For Mengiste's central characters, this period is a time of hardship unlike any they've known. They live on inadequate rations. Every loud noise makes them jump in terror. They are required to make difficult choices that will shape the rest of their lives. Dawit joins a resistance group fighting the Derg. Hailu is forced to decide what to do with a 16-year-old patient who has been raped, tortured, wrapped in a plastic bag, and dragged to his hospital by soldiers who demand that she remain alive. His choice earns him a summons to prison. Yonas, for his part, drives his father to prison instead of trying to help him escape. By the end of the novel, the family seems to be on the brink of complete destruction.
Other recent novels - Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengistu - feature plots driven by the facts of the Ethiopian revolution, but none before this one has dramatised the events leading up to it, nor shown so unflinchingly the violence that ensued. Certainly none has visualised so intimately the private spaces of the King of Kings: Selassie's office, his bedroom, the inner recesses of his mind. A number of scenes are extremely affecting - the beating of a seven-year-old boy; the torture of Hailu; children suffering extreme starvation; Dawit and Sara collecting corpses under cover of night. These reveal (as does a bibliography included with the book) the depth of the author's research and the strength of her imagination.
It is a shame, then, that the novel stops short of bringing its characters fully to life. As intriguing as the portrayal of Selassie is, his ceremonial language, even the silent words he speaks to himself, renders him inaccessible and somewhat unreal: "We must not be anything other than what we are, he reminded himself. We are and so we will be. We are here, in these days of locusts and noise, but it has been written that this shall pass, and so it will." The other characters suffer from a similar woodenness, their language frequently too lofty and their emotions unreachable. At her daughter's fourth birthday party, Sara whispers: "Who am I if not your mother?" Hailu, in prison, says to himself: "This is fear. I know this taste of bile and sweat in my mouth. I have run against Italian bullets with this taste thickened on my tongue." Selam, teaching Dawit how to dance, says: "There is no room for anger in our dances, pretend you are water and flow over your own bones."
In its most ineffective manifestations, the melodrama evokes a level of mysticism that is inappropriate to an otherwise decidedly realist novel. A mother working in a kitchen feels her stomach convulsing when her son on the other side of the city is being beaten by a soldier; a witchlike old woman mysteriously heals a young girl whom doctors had given up as hopeless; a dead boy climbs onto the back of a lion and "becomes the wind", racing to meet his father, also dead, who has been waiting for him on a white horse.
Ultimately, Mengiste overstretches in search of lyricism, weakening her effort to offer the reader something more than reportage. The experience of the characters remains difficult to access. Contrast Mengiste's from-the-inside-out portrayal of Selassie with Kapuscinski's rendering. It is the latter, though constructed entirely from points of view external to the emperor, which brings readers right close up to the essence of the ruler; to do so, it relies on straightforward, and at the same time more nuanced, language.
Nevertheless, the particular horrors of the war are fearlessly delineated here, and it is useful to be reminded that even ancient systems of power can topple quickly and painfully, ensnaring any number of lives in the fallout. That the novel compels the reader through to the end despite its deficiencies says something about the potential of the authorial hand behind it; I would follow Mengiste into horror again.
Amy Rosenberg is a writer in New York.