By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

The historical novel is a difficult endeavor for any writer, but it can be especially difficult when you base your novel during a time of crisis. Books that simultaneously describe the best of times and the worst of times can be heavy-handed, they can get bogged down in the historical minutiae of the era, and the characters can become devices that simply advance a plot coinciding with the most monumental of the period’s events.
Jay Fox

The latter difficulty ends up being the most common pitfall that even the greatest writers fall prey to, and the world of literature has no shortage of characters that are either paragons of an ideal, irredeemable tyrants, or manifestations of an overarching Fate that is not so much tragic as it is brutally predictable. (Even the great work alluded to above, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, produced the savagely one-dimensional Madame Defarge.) This is not to say that such characters ruin books. In fact, such characters can be extremely enjoyable, as was the case with the aforementioned psycho knitter. However, a cast made up entirely of metaphors can become tedious very quickly.

Fortunately, Maaza Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, does not fall in this camp.

Her novel begins during the early days of the Ethiopian Civil War (1974-1991) before jumping ahead to 1977, a time when the Derg—the military junta that took control of the nation following a popular revolution against Emperor Haile Selassie—had better established itself as the sole source of institutionalized power in the country and unleashed a “red terror” against its enemies.

This was not a figurative terror. As historian Yves Santamaria relays in The Black Book of Communism:

Derg leader Mengistu Halie Mariam sent a clear message while giving a public speech in 1977 when he “broke open three flasks of what was supposed to be blood, which represented imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism.”

The bloodletting was not limited to political opponents and legitimate enemies of the regime. One month after the flask spectacle, the Swedish General Secretary of the Save the Children Fund described how grisly the scene in Addis Ababa had become as wild hyenas tore at the bodies of children littering the streets: “You can see the heaped-up bodies of murdered children, most of them aged eleven to thirteen, lying in the gutter, as you drive out of Addis Ababa.”

According to Mengiste's note following the novel, it is unclear how many were ultimately killed during the reign of the Derg. However, “Some reports based on Amnesty International estimates say the death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands.”

This sense of impending violence looms over the book without ever suggesting that the Derg's revolutionary violence is anything more than a vicious power grab. It is granted no grand mythological or transformative purpose like the terror of the French Revolution in Anatole France's 1912 novel, The Gods Will Have Blood. There are no pretensions for Mengiste's characters; the violence is a blunt instrument of oppression.

For example, France's novel opens with his protagonist, √Čvariste Gamelin, walking past a church (a symbol of the obliterated ancien r√©gime) that has been repurposed by the Republic. Of the structure, he says, “On its classical facade, decorated with inverted corbels and ornamental capitals, battered by weather and mutilated by man, the symbols of religion had been smashed with hammers and above the door was inscribed in black letters the slogan of the Republic: ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – or Death.’”

Conversely, Mengiste's novel opens to a more visceral scene: “A thin blue vein pulsed in the collecting pool of blood where a bullet had lodged deep in the boy's back. Hailu was sweating under the heat from the bright operating room lights.... He looked back at his scalpel, the shimmering blood and torn tissues, and tried to imagine the fervor that had led this boy to believe he was stronger than Emperor Haile Selassie's highly trained police.”

This passage informs the reader immediately that this is not a book about clashing ideologies. This is a book about the reality of violence, one that does not shy away from the pain and the suffering that it causes. Mengiste does not make the violence within the book abstract or part of some kind of misguided purification ritual. She examines the very real consequences of a revolution, one that tests the bonds of Hailu, the doctor from the above passage, and his two sons, Dawit and Yonas.

From the beginning, it is clear that Dawit, though the younger brother, is a born leader. He is determined, courageous, and possessed by a clear sense of right and wrong. Despite this perspicuity, he is still young at the beginning of the novel. He lacks sound judgment. It is not until later, once the novel jumps from 1974 to 1977, that his impetuous nature subsides, and he becomes renown throughout Addis Ababa for his exploits against the Derg.

Yonas, conversely, embodies the kind of intellectual laziness of the postcolonial middle class that Frantz Fanon decried in his seminal work on revolutionary theory, The Wretched of the Earth. While he does not support the Derg, he is possessed by the universal bourgeois mentality that seems to value complacency over everything else. It is not until his father—who, like Yonas, is normally opposed to rocking the boat—is arrested and taken to a Soviet-style prison (where Mengiste fashions scenes on par with Darkness at Noon, We, or 1984) that he begins to see his inaction as a form of complicity.

The novel also hinges upon the stressed friendship of Dawit and Mickey—brothers “in all but blood.” Except for Dawit's girlfriend Lily, who seems to be constructed almost entirely out of Marxist-Leninist bumper stickers, Mickey is the only primary character who sides with the Derg. This is the source of the tension between the two.

However, Mickey's support for the regime is lukewarm and he remains conflicted even as he climbs its ranks and commits atrocities in its name. He is merely an opportunist who is too weak to adhere to any strong conviction, whether it be vengeance against the landowners who exploited his peasant father until he died in the fields or the intoxication of power. While Mickey's mother, Habte, seems to relish the fact that the rich are getting their just desserts, Mickey tells himself and others that he is just following orders. He is too weak to do otherwise.

He is not alone. Just about every character who supports the Derg, except for the person who interrogates Hailu while he is in prison (the Colonel), seems to be someone who would be able to say the same. Though they are in control, their power comes from a place of weakness. Consequently, I couldn't help but feel as though Mengiste's novel is as much a historical novel about the Ethiopian revolution as much as it is a meditation on the famous words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

Jay Fox   


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.