Book Review of Maaza Mengiste’s Novel by Adom Getachew

Maaza Mengiste’s novels reject grand narratives, instead offering uncommonly intimate glimpses of what it was like to live through the century of war and dictatorship that created today’s Ethiopian diaspora. - (Adom Getachew)

Boston Review

The Private History of Ethiopia’s Wars

Adom Getachew

The Shadow King
Maaza Mengiste
W.W. Norton, $26.95 (cloth)

“We are the children of failed revolutionaries,” a friend ruefully concluded about our families’ paths from Ethiopia to the United States. The Ethiopian revolution, which quickly devolved to civil war, began in 1974 with an unlikely coalition of radicalized students, intellectuals, populists, and a disaffected army. At the center of this ferment was the “land question” and the “nationalities question.” First, in the midst of a famine in northern Ethiopia, and under the slogan of “Land to the Tiller!” their revolution aimed to replace Ethiopia’s sclerotic monarchy with a socialist state. Second, it sought to displace imperial centralization with a form of democratic self-government that reflected Ethiopia’s ethnic and religious pluralism. That dream was, however, quickly hijacked as the military junta—the Derg—seized power. Claiming to be Marxist-Leninist, in reality its violent authoritarianism soon turned against the socialists who had demanded democratization and redistribution. At the height of state repression during the Red Terror of 1975–77, the Derg massacred between 30,000 and 75,000 dissidents accused of being reactionaries. By the time the Derg’s rule came to an end in 1991, an estimated 1.5 million Ethiopians had died and an Ethiopian diaspora was born for the first time.

Absent the neat divisions of ideology, Mengiste refuses moralization and captures the daily accrued trauma of living through war.

The revolution and its aftermath continue, in Marx’s words, to “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” rendering it both ever-present and unspeakable. Within families, questions about the revolution and the Red Terror often illicit no more than elliptical memories and illusive fragments. One tries to reconstruct from these a narrative of what it was like to live through, but the plot slips away.

For many Ethiopian Americans like myself, born in the last years of the Derg, Maaza Mengiste’s debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010) provided a narrative of the experience of the revolution that we had been seeking and never finding. As such, it was, at least for us, a kind of instant classic.

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