T.K.'s Review: "The Shadow King" by Maaza Mengiste

Published 10th August 2021

Ten years in the writing, and Mengiste has still not mastered the art of direct speech punctuation! The lack of such, combined with the absence of effective paragraphing, makes for difficult reading - somewhat like running a mental marathon; it resembles a breathless child desperate to tell his tale. Short, sharp and heavily loaded sentences almost spit out the detail - a three dimensional graphic detail that does not require imagination. The words are propelled like bullets from a rifle - a fitting style for this brutal foray into the mindless violence and slaughter by military oppressors. Horrific images - those created by language as well as Ettore’s photographs - float like shadows enticing the reader to hear, feel and see every sensation encapsulated within. Such is enhanced by the use of the Chorus - scores of ethereal spirits hovering like shadows … watching and waiting; this embellishes the trauma, horror and pain of many fractured minds. 

Clandestine ‘shadows’ merge the numerous narratives, constantly reflecting the crucial epicentre of Mengiste’s plea for all to acknowledge the role of female warriors, to honour those so often forgotten, and thus to permit their voices to be heard, as reflected in the Prologue: “We must be heard. We must be remembered. We must be known. We will not rest until we have been mourned”.

Again, immediately prior to Hirut being captured by Fucelli, the Chorus summons: “Sing of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts”.

The two foundational keynotes pertaining to ‘shadows’ serve to enrich what can at times be rather a tedious back and forth battle between the Italians and the Ethiopians, what I will term the ‘overshadowing’ and ‘shadow selves’.

The ‘overshadowing’ or contrasting of power and disability is portrayed in the gender bias in military and media reports, the Italian supremacy of weaponry - tanks, communications and poison gas as opposed to Kidane’s arsenal of outdated rifles and running messengers, and the marginalisation of those forced into servitude by the ruling classes. As they are thrown off the cliff, the prisoners’ enunciation of their names triumphantly echo their victory over Fucelli’s mindless slaughter; they remain ‘alive’ not only in Ettore’s images but as lingering, restless ‘shadows’ and voices to haunt their oppressors.

Mengiste also ingeniously weaves impassioned insights into the characters’ inner turmoil and conflicts -their ‘shadow selves’, into the narrative, inviting further familiarisation and reflection; such also serves to evoke compassion in the reader.

Fucelli - son of a tyrannical father, manages to repress his violent brutality during brief episodes of compassion: he observes Tariku as he hangs lifelessly and does not retaliate when the enemy appear to remove his body; he assumes a submissive stance when with Fifi whom he relies on. In his role as Colonel, he dissociates from his murderous desires by distancing himself from the reality of his actions; he has perhaps convinced himself that the guilt rests with the soldiers under his command.

Ettore, the hired war photographer, seeks to deny his ethnic origins when the census for Jews arrives; that is, until grim reality descends. He plays with shadow and light quite perversely as he photographs the atrocities of slaughter; once a simple photographer, he unwittingly becomes an assassin’s accomplice - a perpetrator as evil as Fucelli.

Aster and Hirut, both struggling with the burden of grief, disassociate when raped by Kidane for reality would be too much for the mind to bear. Aster is described as “splitting” and “hovering above herself” whilst Hirut “… watches her own spirit stand from her stained body and walk away”. However, despite such trauma they support him as their leader as they summon all women into battle; they are not content to merely carry supplies, nurse the injured and bury the dead. They transform themselves from victim to perpetrator/ rescuer as they unite to protect their country and future freedom.

Consumed by the grief of losing his son in infancy, Kidane appears emotionally confused and fragmented; he assumes the role of protector/rescuer when he welcomes the orphaned Hirut into his family but later becomes the abuser/transgressor when he rapes her. And yet, he is able to don his warrior ‘mask’ to become a brave and strategic leader. He uses his knowledge of his home territory, his limited arsenal of old weapons and the trust of his comrades to outwit the mighty Italian army.

When stolen as a child, Cook refused to divulge her name and so has remained nameless. After being coerced by Aster into running away with her to avoid marrying Kidane, once caught she selflessly and silently becomes the heroine as she endures the savage beating from Aster’s father. Equally, when Jacques offers Kidane additional rifles in exchange for Hirut, Cook valiantly volunteers to be bartered in her place. She is surely the most compassionate of all the characters, preparing hallucinogenic drugs for the prisoners due to be thrown off the cliff. As she becomes the silent ‘shadow rescuer’ this nameless, oppressed woman has the ability to think laterally and strategise as well as any high ranking soldier.

Minim - a lowly peasant whose name translates as ‘Nothing’ - is perhaps the most compelling ‘shadow rescuer’ in his impersonation of Emperor Selassie who has fled in shame to England; it is Minim, dressed in an Emperor’s uniform, who beguiles his compatriots into a battle frenzy. Minim -a ‘nothing’ man - is transfigured into a powerful messenger of hope -Minim the ‘Shadow King’.

This is a novel that can so easily be read on different levels. As a fictional portrayal of the 1939 Italian invasion of Ethiopia it is a tedious and lengthy read, and not one that I would recommend. From a feminist/activist perspective, it succeeds in highlighting gender bias and female oppression quite successfully but in a somewhat covert fashion at times; it fulfils the author’s desire to bring the forgotten female warriors to our attention. As a narrative of the human condition and the consequences of trauma upon relationships and subsequent actions, it offers a more complex but enlightening read. I believe that Mengiste’s true skill as an author is best depicted in the latter.

Written by T.K.

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