An Ethiopian Story of War
The first Italo-Ethiopian War broke out in 1895, as Italian soldiers marched from Italian Eritrea towards Ethiopia. The Battle of Adwa witnessed Ethiopia's decisive victory in warding off Italian invaders from its soil. This lasted until 1935, when Mussolini's fascist military launched another invasion, plunging the two countries into another two year long war.
Maaza Mengiste's novel The Shadow King (Canongate, 2019), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, takes place against this landscape. As much as it is a story about war, it is also one of women's involvement on the battlefield. In a Literary Hub essay titled "Writing About the Forgotten Black Women of the Italo-Ethiopian War", Mengiste wrote, "..when we speak of war, we speak of tested resolve and broken spirits and wounded bodies and imagine them as masculine figures." She contradicts this impulse by fictionalising the story of her great-grandmother, Getey, who joined the war to fight against Italian troops.
In this regard, The Shadow King does an excellent job by narrating in great detail what it means to be a woman and a soldier.
Hirut, an orphaned maid, struggles to navigate her life in Kidane and his wife Aster's suffocating household. But Aster, who has recently suffered a miscarriage, grapples with jealousy and rage as she senses the rumblings of a romance between her husband and the maid. Just like Mengiste's great-grandmother, Aster had been married off as a child to an adult Kidane, and a particularly chilling chapter in the book portrays the violence wrought by this child marriage, which may remind readers of a similar scene from Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss (2008).
After the first few chapters, the scenes of domesticity give way as Italy begins its invasion and all the characters move into tents up in the hills. To Kidane's dismay—and much like Mengiste's own great-grandmother, who sued her father when he objected to her enlisting—Aster makes an abrupt decision to join the troops. The new reality in this part of the text revolves around wartime necessities including medical and battle training, chalking out ambush strategies, and designing flanks for the battlefield. At one point we witness Aster's trials in prison, where others like herself are subjugated and reduced from fierce soldiers to insignificant mounds.
Meanwhile, characters like Captain Fucelli and the soldier-photographer Ettore bring in the Italian perspectives—and therefore the antagonists' psychology—on the war, making the story more layered and dynamic. While Captain Fucelli is the typical, hyper-masculine villain with an overpowering sense of narcissism and nationalism, through Ettore we observe the ethical turmoil inside a human-mind that is witnessing violence, and, in this case, is becoming complicit by preserving the acts through photography.
Throughout these events, the clear, unpretentious, and lyrical prose buoys the narrative—particularly during the battle scenes—to cinematic heights. Consider these sentences: "Look: a heap of burnt huts, Ibrahim, openmouthed and lionhearted, leading his men across the rubbled field…See: thick red ribbons of blood. See: vicious sun curving against the belly of the sky." This style of narration offers a vantage point from which the reader can take everything in, be it the ragged, rocky slopes of the mountains or the Italians and Ethiopians melting into dust and sound on the battlefield.
The text is also peppered with short supplementary segments titled "Photos", "Choruses", and "Interludes", which serve as commentary on the scenes unfolding in the text. While they do help to add context, I personally felt worn out by them, because they do not contribute much to the story.
Given its hype, I had expected that The Shadow King would leave me thinking long after it ended. But the attention to detail which had a calming effect on me in the first half began to wither away in the second. I felt increasingly disconnected from the characters and their emotions from that point on. The novel is engaging when it begins, but this does not persist until the last page.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a contributor.