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Fiction Grounded in the Harsh Reality of Ethiopia


TO ASMARA by Thomas Keneally, New York: Warner Books, 290 pp., $18.95

(London publication in November)

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IN a world awash with revolutionary movements - and only the flimsiest coverage of foreign news in the popular media - it's often hard to tell whether a given ``liberation army'' is a band of fervent idealists, a party of dangerous ideologues, a gang of hate-filled terrorists, or the incipient Washingtons and Jeffersons of republics yet to be realized.

Dedicated to ``the brave Eritrean People's Liberation Front,'' Thomas Keneally's latest novel is an attempt to fill in the face of a movement that over the past quarter century, virtually unsupported by any major world power, has been waging a guerrilla war against the government of Ethiopia.

Formerly a separate Italian colony in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea became federated with Ethiopia in 1952 by a decision of the United Nations that did not take account of the wishes of the Eritreans, who found themselves discriminated against by people they deemed their cultural inferiors (a by-now classic paradigm that will be recognizable to those who have studied the fate of Jews in Poland, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Biafrans in Nigeria).

The demise of Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie in 1975, far from improving the situation, left in place the Soviet-supported regime of President Mengistu Haile Mariam, described in the normally dispassionate Hammond Almanac as ``one of the most brutal and arbitrary ... in power today.''

The complexities of the political situation have, understandably, been overshadowed in the world's attention by the terrible famines that have plagued the region. Acknowledging this problem in perception, Keneally begins with the image of a Bob Geldorf-like rock singer pleading for famine relief and denouncing the rebels who recently blew up a convoy of trucks bearing food to the starving.

Timothy Darcy, the Australian journalist who narrates ``To Asmara,'' senses the presence of a more complicated story behind the 45-second television news segment. His journey to the Eritrean provincial capital, Asmara, is presented as an attempt to discover the larger truth.

What he finds is a country where military vehicles are often disguised as relief agency trucks and where famine is as much a product of human mismanagement as of natural disaster.

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Darcy undertakes his journey at the behest of an Eritrean rebel leader, and travels with Eritrean rebels as his guides. Three other Westerners are in his party: Mark Henry, a sardonic American aid worker; Lady Julia Ashmore-Smith, an unflappable middle-aged feminist committed to saving African women from the horrific ritual of female circumcision; and Christine Malm'edy, a young French girl whose search for her father, a famous photojournalist, becomes the focus of the journey.

As they visit the bunkers, the villages, the brilliantly improvised hospitals and schools run by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, they are increasingly impressed - indeed, astonished - by the courage, intelligence, resourcefulness, and moral superiority of this particular revolutionary movement.

Only Mark Henry, the sardonic American, is peculiarly resistant to the general mood, and by the end of the book we understand just why he always seems to become hostile the more admirably the Eritreans behave.

When a novel deals this closely with current political events, the nonspecialist reader faces the problem of how to judge the accuracy - in points of fact and in the larger spirit of truth - of the novelist's rendition of reality.

Given what one knows of the Ethiopian regime and of the long duration of Eritrean resistance, ``To Asmara'' seems a credible account. Keneally spent just three months in Africa researching the book, but writes with conviction.

In showing us the difficulties his characters have in overcoming their skepticism, he invites us to trust their (and his) perceptions of the Eritreans as Washingtons and Jeffersons of their cause.

When so many of us in the West remain blind to the injustices black people suffer at the hands of other blacks, any writer who helps us see a picture that does not happen to reflect our own narrower concern with ``racism'' is performing a vital service.

``To Asmara'' is an effective and affecting attempt to present the struggle of a self-reliant people in a form that should appeal to a wide readership.

Judged ``merely'' as a novel, ``To Asmara'' is one of Keneally's best efforts: suspenseful, well-paced, a balanced blend of action and depth, reasonably well-written, and increasingly engrossing to read after some initial awkwardness.

It is, assuredly, a novel that draws its power from the urgency of the real events it portrays: Were there no such country as Ethiopia, no such people as the Eritreans, no famine, no torture, Keneally's story of some fictional struggle in an imaginary country would not be strong enough to compel the response we give to great political allegories, like ``Lord of the Flies'' or ``Nineteen Eighty-Four.''

But the reality behind Keneally's fiction is part of its impact, cannot help being so, and it seems only fair that a novel that lends itself to the purpose of calling attention to real events should also draw strength from its association with those events.

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