Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book 79, Ethiopia: "Beneath the Lion's Gaze" by Maaza Mengiste

Of course the great text of Ethiopia is the Kebra Nagast, the Glory of Kings, the 14th century chronicle of royals from Sheba and Solomon down to medieval times (also the main holy book of the Rastafarians). Sadly, the library only stocks the following:

But I'm being unnecessarily melodramatic, because this novel is awesome. No, seriously, it's superbly well written, really capturing the horror of the Ethiopian Revolution in 1974 and the purges of the Derg: exquisite language, vivid dream sequences, and all following a middle-class family, too, so there's that soap-opera quality that makes it actually enjoyable beach reading.

I actually finished it on Tuesday night, but have been busy with the Singapore Writers Festival and teaching, etc (I'm hosting the Moving Words launch on Saturday now! Just got asked), and come to think of it, I'm pretty tired, so I'll just make two main points:

1. Horrible to admit this, but the author's NYU polished English style plus the fact that the characters are urban intellectuals means that the story doesn't feel like typical African fiction at all: you actually forget the characters are black.

This makes the tale more relatable than ever: you feel yourself inside the skins of these jeans-wearing, stethoscope-toting secular professionals, whose political traumas could've happened in Maoist China or Pol Pot's Cambodia or Stalin's USSR or Bush and Obama's Iraq, really. Odd how that happened. No conscious attempts to whitewash them, as far as I know.

2. The author's created the fictional character of dictator General Guddu for the story. Why? It's based on Mengistu Haile Mariam, so why not just give him that name - she admits to stretching the facts in her afterword, and she did a marvellous job narrating from the viewpoint of a doomed Haile Selassie in the Jubilee Palace.

I suspect she made the change 'cos Mengistu's name sounds too much like hers, and she didn't want to have to field unpleasant questions from dumb folks about whether she was a descendant. Cheating? Yeah, but a sane decision.

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Representative quote: How would Emperor Haile Selassie later describe the moon that night? Voluminous, as thick as milk, a thousand melted stars that sliced the sky with razor-sharp edges. Even in the dark, from his window, he could make out the outlines of trees shivering in the breeze. A truck with squealing brakes pulled up and a barking order, followed by the confused mutterings of soldiers, made the emperor move back to his cot. There was nothing here that we would want to see. Lying on the bed, he raked his fingers over the spider-bite scabs that dotted his arms, picked at one, and took comfort in the tiny pinch of a peeling wound. This was evidence, he reminded himself, that he was still alive. They hadn't killed him yet.

Next book: Hannah Pool's My Father's Daughter, from Eritrea.

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