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‘The Shadow King’ is a must-read on Ethiopia’s history

This is a story about fascists and freedom fighters, and emperors and common people.

- July 16, 2020

Maaza Mengiste’s “The Shadow King” is a masterpiece. Here’s why.

In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. Though a member of the League of Nations and a country that could trace its history as an organized political unit to the first century C.E., Ethiopia was abandoned to its fate when Benito Mussolini launched the invasion that October. No one had ever colonized the powerful kingdom, but Mussolini was determined to build a fascist empire to rival that of ancient Rome — and control of Ethiopia was essential to his plans.

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It’s against this backdrop that Mengiste sets her brilliant 2019 novel, “The Shadow King.” As word of the Italian Army’s arrival spreads and fear grips the countryside, Mengiste tells us the story of Hirut, an orphaned young girl all but abandoned by those who should have taken over her care. Taken in by her mother’s friend, Kidane, Hirut is a servant in his household where she is tormented by the unpredictable jealousies and moods of his wife, Aster.

But theirs will not be the same life that generations of their families lived before them. War is coming, and Hirut watches Kidane gather weapons and build a local militia to face the Italian invasion. Mengiste follows these events as the Italians creep closer to their community and tension builds between Aster and Kidane in the home as well. Over time, they all have a role to play, with Aster taking on a surprising leadership role and Hirut proving herself to be a skilled fighter. The militia, with women and children in supporting roles, prepares for battle, hiding in caves, trying to help the wounded, and coming increasingly close to their final encounter with the Italians.

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The Italians in the story are equally fascinating, painted not simply as colonizing caricatures, but as complex men with complicated motives for participating in the war. One soldier, who is Jewish, must reckon with increasing prejudice and then outright danger to his life as Italy aligns itself with Nazi Germany and the call goes out in the ranks for Jews to turn themselves in. As a secretly Jewish Italian in a fascist army, he will try to prove his loyalty at a torture and execution site, the cruelty of which mirrors the horrors of what awaits him back in Europe. Hirut and her compatriots also have an unavoidable date with destiny at the site, one that will haunt Hirut for the rest of her days.

In a series of interludes, we also get a glimpse into the mind of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Mengiste’s deft writing suggests what he might have been thinking as Italy invaded his country and persecuted his people, leaving him little choice but to flee with his family to the United Kingdom for the duration of the war. The scenes in which the emperor tries to make sense of what is happening are among the book’s most compelling.

In one interview, Mengiste explains how she set out “to write a book that reflected history as a series of voices that sometimes conflict.” Interludes in the story carry forward the narrative with a “Chorus” that guides the reader to understand Hirut’s fate and the way it is entangled with Kidane’s cruelty, her growing love for another soldier, and that of the emperor in exile in a faraway land as his people continue to fight for Ethiopia. “Arise, Hirut” says the Chorus, and we are compelled to know that becoming a soldier is her only choice.

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The novel takes its title from an idea of Hirut’s, one intended to bring hope to the Ethiopian people in a time of great despair. A man in the militia’s camp, Minim, looks so much like Selassie that they decide he must become a “Shadow King” — someone who will appear to peasants in the countryside dressed in regal vestments and riding a royal-looking horse, allowing people to believe that their emperor has not abandoned them, and giving them hope to continue the fight until the Italians are defeated.

I devoured the beautifully written “The Shadow King” in two nights, then read Mengiste’s earlier novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” in two more. She is simply an outstanding writer, with an uncanny ability with words, metaphor, history and truth. That her novel also centers on women like Hirut and Aster makes it even more compelling.

I simply cannot recommend this remarkable book highly enough to anyone who looks for the best writing to tell compelling stories. It would also be a great asset for any student of Ethiopian history or politics, helping to bring to life the narratives of fascists and freedom fighters, emperors and common people.