The Shadow King

Ettore, bear witness to what its happening. Make living your act of defiance. Record it all. Do it relentlessly, with that stubbornness and precision that is so very much like your father. This is why I gave you your first camera. Do not let these people forget what they have become. Do not let them turn away from their own reflections—

Every photograph has become a broken oath with himself, a breach in the defenses that he set up to ignore what he really is: an archivist of obscenities, a collector of terror, a witness to all that breaks skin and punctures resolve and leaves human beings dead.

Haile Selassie at the League of Nations, image credit.

Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, delivered a speech in Geneva, Switzerland on June 30, 1936. An Italian army had invaded his country the year before, attempting to for the second time to conquer the last uncolonized region of Africa. The people of Ethiopia had resisted, but the Italians unleashed the horrors of modern warfare, including chemical weapons, on soldiers and civilians alike. The world had imposed minor sanctions on the Italians and proposing resolutions to the conflict that Benito Mussolini simply ignored, claiming that this war of conquest was, in fact, an act of self-defense because of a frontier clash on the frontier with Italian Somaliland. He simply denied the accusations of chemical warfare. Now Haile Selassie addressed the League of Nations general assembly, speaking in Amharic, begging the member nations to stop this fascist aggression. Haile Selassie might have been a head of state, but whether the league was toothless or the members ambivalent about expending resources to help an African state, his appeal fell on deaf ears.

In The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste’s difficult and beautiful novel, the horrors of this campaign are given life.

The core of The Shadow King weaves together two stories.

The first follows Hirut, an orphaned Ethiopian girl in the household of the local nobleman, Kidane. The lady of the house, Aster, makes Hirut’s life miserable. She takes her frustrations out on Hirut, viewing as a sexual rival and accusing her of theft—first falsely, then accurately. After the Italians invade, Kidane even confiscates Hirut’s prized memento from her father, an antique rifle called Wujigra to use in the war.

The second story is that of Ettore Navarra, a Italian photographer of Jewish descent charged with documenting the invasion. His is a complicated relationship with the invasion: he harbors the Ethiopians no particular ill-will and is deeply disconcerted by the atrocities, but he is also Italian and this is his job. However, even in Ethiopia, Navarra cannot escape the radicalization taking place back home where Benito Mussolini’s fascist state is beginning to draw sharp lines between Jews and “real” Italians.

Inexorably these two plots come together. The women of Ethiopia refuse to stay home while Kidane’s forces wage a guerrilla war against the Italian forces, a war that continues even after Haile Selassie fled the country. First Aster and Hirut follow Kidane’s men to care for and supply the men, but gradually become more involved. Eventually, they hatch a plan to choose a “Shadow King”—a lookalike stand-in to inspire the people to resist the invasion—for whom they serve as the guard.

On the other side, the Italians and their African ascari begin to dig in, and Navarra documents it all. His commander, the sadistic Colonel Carlo Fucelli, puts his men to work building a prison where they can hold captured Ethiopians, to say nothing of debasing them. Naturally, this prison will serve as the focal point for a final showdown.

These two stories would make for a compelling book on their own, particularly given Mengiste’s gift for characterization. For instance, even the brutal and vicious Colonel Fucelli, who earned the nickname “The Butcher of Benghazi” for his cruelty in Libya, is not a straightforward fascist caricature. He is undeniably cruel, yes, and racist, both traits on display in his sexual relationship with the African courtesan Fifi, which itself violates the ban on such couplings. Fucelli is also willing to ignore orders forcing him to out Navarra as a Jew, at least for a while. Mengiste leaves his motivations for both decisions masked: perhaps Fucelli simply believes that the rules don’t apply to him, but perhaps his prejudices are not quite as deeply held as one might think—not that that changes how much one might root for him to be punished.

However, what elevates The Shadow King to my list of favorite novels is how Mengiste layers other voices onto these two stories. She imagines interludes where Haile Selassie reflects on the plight of Ethiopia, often invoking Verdi’s opera Aida, whose eponymous character is an Ethiopian princess. Elsewhere, choruses of Ethiopian women raise their voices up in an echo of Greek tragedy:

Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts.

Photographs captured in text punctuate the narrative:

A woman slumped against a walking stick, paralyzed leg dangling beneath her long dress. A row of braids that fan out to thick, dark curls. Tattoos gracing the line of her throat to her jaw. bruises near her eyes, at her mouth, a thread of blood dried against her ear. She is mid-sentence, her tongue against her teeth, curving around a world lost forever.

A boy in a stained shirt rests his cheek against a tall boulder as if it were a father’s chest. He stares at the camera, doe-eyed and curious, his lips folded around a mouthful of food, a stream of words, a cry for help, a burst of laughter. One palm balances against the hard surface of stone, his finger raised and pointed ahead, the gesture an accusation and a plea for patience.

These layers harmonize with the two core stories, reinforcing them, expanding them, and humanizing them, before building to a climax years later during the last days of Haile Selassie’s reign when Hirut meets Ettore Navarra once more to return his pictures.

I found the combined effect of this novel stunning. Mengiste is a beautiful writer, to be sure, but it is also a brilliantly structured novel. It would have to be. Mengiste tackles themes of race, identity, gender, and memory, all of which are easy to do poorly, either because they come across as caricature or moralizing. This goes double with fascism. There are no easy answers in The Shadow King, but each element adds to the texture that earns every moment.

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I’m still working through the recent list of things I’ve read with these posts, and particularly want to write one about Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Kim Un-su’s The Plotters.

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