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Beneath the Lion's Gaze

A moving story of political and personal turmoil set in the Ethiopia of the 1970s.

By Geoff Wisner / March 5, 2010

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze By Maaza Mengiste W.W. Norton 308 pp., $24.95

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Ethiopia, an independent country for almost 3,000 years, has its own written language and a larger population than any African country other than Nigeria. Yet except for the work of Dinaw Mengestu and Nega Mezlekia, not much Ethiopian literature is available in English. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, an ambitious and accomplished first novel by Maaza Mengiste, helps to fill that gap.

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Though the author left Ethiopia as a small child, she conveys the sharp beauty of the country with authority. “A blue haze drifted from eucalyptus trees dotting the hillside of Addis Ababa and clung to the horizon like a faint, tender bruise.... One young woman delicately balanced a baby on her hip as she arranged her neatly stacked rows of cinnamon sticks and berbere on a thin cloth in front of her, the bags of crushed red pepper bright as rubies.”

“Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” begins in the Addis Ababa of 1974. It takes its title from a stone lion that looks over the city from atop an obelisk – a monument to those killed in the struggle against Italian aggression. The aging Emperor Haile Selassie, known to some as the Lion of Judah, is losing his grip on power. Student demonstrations are being suppressed with violence.

As the novel opens, a middle-aged surgeon named Hailu is removing a police bullet from the back of a student protester. As Hailu knows, his youngest son, Dawit, is also taking part in the protests. Elsewhere in the hospital, the surgeon’s wife is dying of congestive heart failure. Things are bad for Hailu, but they are soon to get much worse.

While the emperor lives a life of medieval pomp in his several palaces, thousands are starving to death in a northern province. A cabal of military officers wants change, but dares not challenge the near-mystical power of the emperor. Their solution is a kind of slow-motion coup. One by one, the emperor’s allies are replaced with officers, until one day they simply lead him to a Volkswagen and drive him away.

The author shifts fluidly between her characters’ points of view, and she is bold enough to take us into the mind of the emperor himself. She does so believably – in part because many of his thoughts and feelings would be those of any old man who finds himself confused, helpless, and at the mercy of others. “Only the howls of the dog that scraped its bony ribs against the mud walls outside during feeding time let the emperor know that another day had passed.” Even more boldly, she imagines the emperor’s death – a real-life mystery that has never been resolved.

The new military regime, called the Derg, soon proves to be harshly neo-Stalinist. Intellectuals and ex-government ministers are rounded up and killed without the formality of a trial. Houses and businesses are nationalized, and spies and parasites installed there. Food becomes scarce, and ration cards are issued for staples like teff, the grain used to bake the spongy bread called injera.

How to respond to the oppression of the Derg is the question that tests Hailu and his sons. The brave and reckless Dawit shifts almost seamlessly from protesting against the emperor to protesting against the Derg. Like his namesake David, he is willing to pit himself against the Goliath of authority, but his thoughtlessness sometimes endangers his family – as when he leaves cartons of subversive pamphlets in his father’s car.

Hailu’s test is both personal and political. One day two soldiers bring him the tortured body of a young woman, wrapped in plastic and near death. Hailu treats her, but gradually realizes that she is in constant agonizing pain, and that if he succeeds in saving her it will only be to return her to the hands of her torturers. His dying wife once asked him to let her go, and he would not. Now he must make a similar decision.

“Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” tells a painful story, but the beauty of its language keeps it from becoming unreadable. Stark scenes of conflict and violence are set off by the dreamlike visions of the characters. Hailu’s dying wife sees herself flying “into the crevice of a rolling cloud.” A young boy rides a lion, while his long-lost father rides toward him on a white horse.

Intelligent and moving, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” provides a window into a complex and ancient country.

Geoff Wisner is the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.”

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