Maaza Mengiste, Ethiopian-born but US raised, has published her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Maaza (Ethiopians use mengiste-mfirst names where Americans use family names) has already gained recognition for her short stories and earned an MFA degree at NYU, where she teaches writing.

Her local reputation (named “New Literary Idol” by New York Magazine and a Pushcart Prize nominee) got a New York Times review that was marred by undigested and misleading Google sludge about Ethiopia and needed a printed correction of a conspicuous error. The Times reviewer seemed clueless about Ethiopia.  More attentive reviewers also lacked a feeling for Maaza’s subject while recognizing that she was a serious and talented writer.

The problem is that beneath-the-lions-gazeBeneath the Lion’s Gaze is in part an insider’s book.  Many will read it with interest, but its heart beats most powerfully for those who know something about Ethiopia and the shock, only 36 years ago, of the abrupt end to its feudal absolute monarchy.

Maaza’s central character is Ethiopia itself, which comes to life through events during two chaotic periods in the lives, in 1974 and 1977, of Dr. Hailu, his family and household, a few humble neighbors and several others who form a microcosm of highland Christian Ethiopians living in the capital, Addis Ababa.  Growing instability burst into violence in 1974 after a group of junior Army officers formed the Derg (committee) to restore order but soon did away with the aging Emperor Haile Selassie, the institution of monarchy itself and massacred scores of senior officials and loyalists. This is not a historical novel in the usual sense, but these historic events dominated everyone’s life, particularly in the capital.

A comment about ‘highland Christian Ethiopia’:  the ancient core of Ethiopia was a northern region that became Christian in the 4th century then took its Christian culture southward through the highlands and extending its authority into the surrounding lowlands. The resulting Christian-dominated Empire was multi-ethnic and multi-religious, with the crown usually held by one of two related highland groups. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church validated the legitimacy of the emperors, and was in turn protected by them.  In Maaza’s novel, this core culture represents all of Ethiopia. Though she greatly oversimplifies a complex situation, it holds up well enough for her purposes.

Inexperienced and insecure as political leaders, the Derg was brutal toward its enemies, both real and suspected.  Its most serious enemies were ideological leftists, most of them connected with the university community, who responded with their own brutality, hoping at first to create a civilian government with the soldiers returning to their barracks. Instead, the two sides descended into a bitter fight for power. The far stronger Derg eradicated its rivals not long after the events in the novel.  The unsophisticated junior officers, not committed to any political ideology when they took power, later found it expedient to turn sharply to the left. By then, most senior officers and the upper class were dead, in prison or had fled the country. A small conservative opposition failed to gain traction.

When the novel begins in 1974, opposition to the emperor was unstructured but in the process of forming two centers, one civilian, one military.  At first, both wanted to reform the government, but perhaps surprised by the unexpected fragility of the system, the soldiers took over the government instead. The civilian intellectuals then tried unsuccessfully to influence the relatively uneducated Derg leaders.  As they lost ground, the battle intensified. Maaza introduces her characters within and in response to these events. A young victim of a police shooting is treated by Dr. Hailu. His student son, Dawit, becomes involved with campus radicals.

The fall of the monarchy and the slaughter of many of the country’s elite ignited a full blown national crisis. Maaza’s characters, like everyone else, are stunned.  In the end, like most of Addis, all but a few watched passively, going about their lives and hoping to avoid collateral damage. With increasing force, the Derg imposed absolute control of every aspect of life, and of life itself. Maaza conveys the mood vividly.

Public protests which might have broken out elsewhere were not Ethiopia’s way. Almost all were descendants of peasants, at most a generation or two removed from the countryside, and exhibited the habitual fatalism of earlier generations, accepting in silence whatever happened, hoping to survive, taking spiritual and religious shelter in ways that readers, even some who know Ethiopia, may grasp for the first time. Those who did oppose the Derg were, with some exceptions, westernized, and some had studied abroad.

This was not, at first, a traditional Ethiopian uprising, being based on reform rather than overthrow.  That changed with the emperor’s removal in 1974 and subsequent murder.

After the emperor’s death, the story jumps ahead to 1977, with brief flashbacks giving us bits of the past. The monarchy had already shown itself unable to adjust to changing times, failing to heed the warning of a coup attempt in 1960. The end finally came when images of a catastrophic famine, neglected and denied by the palace, were captured by a BBC television reporter.  Public anger spread quickly, fueled by a series of strikes by soldiers demanding better conditions, taxi drivers and teachers, student demonstrations, and then the announcement that the emperor had been taken from the palace. The single TV channel broadcast footage created by the Derg showing banqueting in the palace inter-cut with scenes of starving mothers and children.  We learn how much harsher life had become since 1974. The Derg’s Red Terror was at its peak. The much weaker opposition’s White Terror, was desperate.

Both the Red and White Terrors were now leftist, fighting for power as Ethiopian oppositions always had. The campus radicals – in the novel and in fact – were influenced by the socialist ideas of students in Europe and North America. The Derg had cooled toward the US when its request for arms was rejected, and joined the Socialist camp when it accepted East bloc arms. Maaza’s passing mention of Cuba refers to the 10,000 troops sent by Castro at Moscow’s request to help Ethiopia repel an invasion from Somalia in 1977. Ethiopia, a firm US ally since World War II, was now a Cold War enemy.

Maaza gives us a fine but subtle portrait of Ethiopia’s character, though there is a set of characters missing which is for me the novel’s only serious weakness.  The battle for power is a common thread in Ethiopian history, but her limited attention to the Derg, whose motives are never examined, leaves the portrait incomplete. Remaining on top always meant constant maneuvering that not infrequently led to violence, sometimes bringing an illegitimate claimant to power. Maaza’s adult characters would have talked about the Derg leaders constantly among themselves, comparing them with familiar characters they had heard about since childhood.

We are left with basic questions about the Derg and its supporters. Who were they?  What led these commoners to aspire to power?  How did they see themselves?  How much public support did the Derg have, and how much passive acceptance?  Maaza isn’t alone in overlooking the Derg, it should be said. Relatively little can be found about them in either journalistic or academic sources.  Ethiopians still seem unready to examine the shadows of their recent past.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church became dependent on the Derg after its vast landholdings were nationalized. Christian Ethiopia remained deeply pious, clinging to the most visible surviving institution from the past. Power was now in the hands of unknown commoners with unknown intentions. Fear was ever present. Anyone could be arrested and tortured at any moment: a father, sister, even a small child. Thousands were never seen again.  Some were found as corpses dumped from military trucks on nighttime streets emptied by curfews. Several of Maaza’s characters responded to this particular barbarism in both an Ethiopian and Christian manner. Amnesty International has estimated that 200,000 or more were killed during these years, the majority in Addis Ababa where resistance was strongest.

We learn just enough of the sweep of events, including a few references to foreign affairs, to see the broader context. Some of the characters go out during the day, others stay in the compound but all are shaken by the collapse of the empire. Dr. Hailu treats victims of the Derg. Dawit, his sister-in-law Sara, and Melaku, a nearby shopkeeper, become politically active. It is an effective ground level view of history.

At a book reading, Maaza said that she began this novel after learning about Argentina’s years under the generals.  She understood for the first time that there was no “fatal flaw” in Ethiopia that had led to the Derg. Her interest was personal; she had her own trace memories from before her parents took her out of Ethiopia when she was four. A Derg could arise anywhere.

During the five years she worked on this novel, Maaza refined her ideas, responding to critiques of the short story she first produced and expanding it into a novel. She came to realize that while leaders could be equally corrupted by power in Ethiopia and Argentina, there were differences in how cultures absorbed and responded to shocks.

Intimidation and abuse, arrest and torture of relatives provoke similar emotions.  Families everywhere grieve for lost relatives. But Maaza also describes Ethiopia’s particular responses, drawn from its own character. She takes us beyond surface differences in appearance and the common humanity beneath, to a place where Ethiopians and Argentinians are again different because each is profoundly shaped by a different past.

Shock and terror stripped away ordinary habits and reactions and exposed Ethiopia’s uniqueness, the outcome of over fifteen unbroken centuries of cultural ripening, a period matched by few living nations. Its long history – still an active legacy for highland Ethiopians – has nurtured in its people, and Maaza’s characters, a profoundly original sense of the world, with its own cultural values and expectations and drenched in an indelible and original Christian spirituality. It bonds Ethiopians in a relationship to a past that is still present, becoming in hard times the life preserver they cling to. There were no harder times than these Derg years.

This is an Ethiopia we don’t often see, a deeply spiritual highland society where suffering is mediated by intensely personal, mystical and often superstitious responses. Fatalism, the classic stance of the long suffering Ethiopian peasant, is suffused with religious acceptance of the harshness of life. Several characters cushion the grinding horrors around them with emotions steeped in this spiritualism.  Bow your head and survive, they seem to say.  Raise it, as the campus radicals were doing, and it would be cut off. Feudal times were also harsh, and Ethiopians were prepared by their history to survive the Derg.

The final weeks of Haile Selassie’s reign, including the poignant moment when he was taken from his palace in the back seat of a Volkswagen (as reported in the world press) are memorably presented.  Maaza shows him as a frail, confused old man, past 80, formerly all-powerful, now helpless and alone.  With fine poetic sensitivity, she provides him with an inner voice as he struggles to maintain his tattered dignity and to simultaneously accept and resist his fate, and to express his impotent outrage at the indignities to which he is subjected. There are pages in her brief rendering of Haile Selassie’s final days – not many scenes, not many pages – that are painful but also compelling, even touched with greatness.

Maaza’s characters are an ordinary collection of Addis residents.  Middle-aged Hailu is a doctor at a government hospital, not particularly religious, highly professional and committed to his work, devoted to his family, out of touch with his radicalized son, Dawit. He watches his more traditionally inclined wife waste away from a heart ailment, revealing herself in mystical, devotional language. His older son, Yonas, a decent man of weak character, has a deep love for his young daughter and for his wife Sara. Sara, one of Maaza’s more complex characters, suffers intensely after two failed pregnancies and fears deeply for the safety of her single daughter, subjecting herself to a shocking penance to assure Tizita’s life. She responds to the political crisis with exceptional courage.

Others, most of them little more than walk-ons, include Melaku, the neighboring shopkeeper who becomes the most appealing character in the novel. Several household and compound residents and neighbors flesh out the little community. Maaza uses them effectively.

A small additional set of characters represents the evil loosed on Ethiopia . . . a nameless colonel who is both a torturer and unexpectedly a victim, Dawit’s childhood friend Mickey, who was too poor to attend the university and joined the army instead, where fate involved him in supporting the coup plotters as he inexorably became one of them. In this group, only Mickey has more than one dimension.

By 1977, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam was the unchallenged leader of the Derg though he doesn’t appear in the novel. In an Author’s Note Maaza tells us that the fictional Major Guddu was ‘inspired’ by Mengistu, remaining a remote, evil figure rather than a participant in her story.

Some reviewers wrote that Maaza’s characters – even the central figures — are not fully drawn.  That is a fair comment, but her focus is less on individuals than on the way they combine to form her picture of Ethiopia. Her characters embody a uniquely Ethiopian response to the trauma they are living through.  Sharply delineated characters might have weakened her group portrait. Each character contributes to the texture, even the torturers and their accomplices, because in Ethiopia, God’s world has always known evil.

Some will find it hard to appreciate Maaza’s portrayal of Ethiopian religious sentiment, or her poetic and sometimes dazzling command of the imagery and iconography of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. At times, as some noted, she tends toward “purple prose.”

One reviewer thought that the plot was “clunky” and ends a bit mechanically.  I agree that the plot was not strong, but it was also not central. I would add that the narrative is unnecessarily fragmented and that it came to a somewhat unsatisfying end which I leave for readers to discover for themselves.

Such complaints do not diminish Maaza’s impressive achievement. Her view of Ethiopia is original, her characters respond to those terrible years believably and sometimes in ways that can be found only in Ethiopia. This is a novel that deserves an attentive audience, not just among Ethiopians.

Maaza is interested in her characters in historic times but is not writing a history lesson. It is a portrait of a society – inseparably both Ethiopian and Christian – under intense stress. The national character that was brought to the surface will be immediately familiar to Ethiopian readers – so familiar, in fact, that they might not even notice it.

An Ethiopian friend I met at Maaza’s reading had a handful of copies under his arm.  “I couldn’t put it down”, he said. “I’m giving copies to all my young relatives who are growing up here and don’t know what we went through.” For a culture obsessed with its past, an uninformed generation is a high price to pay.

Note: Mengistu Haile Mariam ruled Ethiopia until 1991, when he was overthrown by the rebel movement which formed today’s Ethiopian government. He fled to Zimbabwe where he still lives under the protection of Robert Mugabe.  Mugabe is repaying an old debt. Mengistu had hosted and supported him when Mugabe was a leader in Zimbabwe’s fight for independence.


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