Sunday 16 February 2014

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

MengisteBeneath the Lion’s Gaze
Maaza Mengiste

In 1974 the Ethiopian Marxist Derg, Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army, staged a coup against Emperor Haile Selassie. The resultant Civil War lasted until 1991, left around 1.5 million people dead and imprisoned thousands of others without trial. This novel charts the fortunes of an Addis family - Hailu, a doctor, his sons Dawit and Yonas, Yonas’s wife Sara – through the build up to the Civil War and through part of it.
The first part of the book introduces the family as it deals with private tragedy (the death of Selam, Hailu’s wife, the sickness of Yonas and Sara’s only surviving child, Tizita) amidst increasing instability in the city caused by the mounting pressure on the emperor to do something about the famine in Wollo/Wello, Tigre and Shoa/Sewa provinces and rebellions amongst soldiers.  Dawit becomes increasingly involved in the student movement whilst his childhood friend Mickey is exposed first to the horrors of the famine and then to the brutalism of the Derg commanders.  I was particular struck by the writer’s sensitivities such as when she writes about the imprisonment of the Emperor  I thought she encapsulated both the awe in which ordinary Ethiopians held their Emperor and the endlessness of solitary imprisonment - “He’d been taken to the great hall that had once belonged to the late Emperor Zewditu.All of the furniture had been emptied out of the big room and onlu a small cot with thin sheets and a blanket sat in its center. Soldiers were posted outside his door, which was locked in triplicate and then chained. Their fear of him was heartbreaking, compounding his loneliness and the largeness of this empty space he was trapped inside. They walked backwards into the room whenever they escorted his old servant inside with his food, doubly armed and wearing sunglasses. They scurried out as quickly as they could, too afraid to glance his way. The mournful whispers of his old lion, Tojo, lulled him to sleep, and he tried to make himself forget about the garden just outside his window which he was no longer allowed to walk in. Under the weight of this solitude, all the emperor’s hours, minutes, and seconds blurred and ran together like a slow, dying river.” Similarly at the end of Part One when we see Mickey being threatened at gun point, one of his comrades having already been so threatened and killed, to force him to perform the execution.
In the second part, realities of the Derg regime begin to hit home, Dawit becomes increasingly involved in the production and distribution of opposition pamphlets which causes friction with his father and brother. He witnesses the dumping of the body of a neighbour ‘s daughter and cannot do anything about it. Mickey, having confessed all to Dawit and having handed over his pistol, appears to be continuing to work for the authorities and to be rising in their ranks. Hailu has to care for one of the horribly beaten victims of torture who was required by the regime to recover. Instead of permitting the terrified girl to go back to suffer further torture Hailu gives her a cyanide pill and “wanted to think that last look before she closed her eyes was gratitude” As a result he is summoned to the jail and by the end of Book 2 he is alone in a cell in the dark.
In Book 3 the family try in vain to find out what has happened to Hailu: they go to the jail, they try to see Mickey, Yonas and Sara’s relationship feels the strain. Meanwhile, Dawit builds up his support cell with the help of Sara and Melaku, the man who runs their local kiosk. During the curfew hours, they undertake the unpleasant and dangerous work of collecting victims bodies dumped roadside and returning them to their families. In a horrid turn to the story line their neighbour’s young son, just starting to work the streets selling newspapers, witnesses the assassination of a Derg official and is taken into custody. Being a child offers no protection against the brutality of the Derg and he becomes one of the victims. Dawit graduates in the ranks of the opposition and is transformed into a legend, Mekonnen, killer of soldiers. 
Hailu’s torture continues. As a doctor he realises his jaw is broken and he is swallowing his own dislodged teeth, that his assailant is good at accurately placing blows to get no blood on his own clothes. He tries to stick to his story that the girl was dead, but of course finally cannot.  Finally Hailu is freed, after a real twist in the tale when the truth behind the interrogator’s fervour to find this girl is revealed, and somehow find his way home to the warmth and safety of his family.
The final part of the book brings Mekonnen’s legend to its peak, with the attempted assassination of the Derg leadership. Somewhat predictably, the storyline has Dawit primed to target the vehicle in the convoy of dignitaries in which Mickey sits. But their previous friendship is no  protection in civil war. The regime retaliates by mounting an exhaustive search for and elimination of all opposition in what became known as the Red Terror period of Ethiopian history. With no where left to hide Dawit goes home and in a final ‘family stand together against terror’ scene is successfully hidden from the authorities, this time.
I think the author writes very compassionately about the horrors, although in places they may be a bit too graphic for some sensibilities, they seem well researched and grounded in reality. The New Yorker writes. “But the real marvel of this tender novel is its coiled plotting, in which coincidence manages to evoke the colossal emotional toll of the revolution: on a crowded street, soldiers force the doctor’s elder son to drag away a prisoner whom they shot, and who turns out to be a family servant’s long-lost child; the younger son becomes a legendary resistance fighter, killing soldiers and collecting civilian bodies for burial, while his fumbling childhood best friend thrives under a senior officer of the junta”. By bringing together all these coincidences into the life of this one family the author encapsulates all the tribulations of the whole of the opposition and ordinary people of the country during this time in a highly credible first novel.
ashramblings verdict 4* a very readable account of a family’s journey into the horror’s of a civil war which set brother against brother, father against son, husband against wife.

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