A moving story of political and personal turmoil set in the Ethiopia of the 1970s.
Ethiopia, an independent country for almost 3,000 years, has its own written language and a larger population than any African country other than Nigeria. Yet except for the work of Dinaw Mengestu and Nega Mezlekia, not much Ethiopian literature is available in English. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, an ambitious and accomplished first novel by Maaza Mengiste, helps to fill that gap.
Though the author left Ethiopia as a small child, she conveys the sharp beauty of the country with authority. “A blue haze drifted from eucalyptus trees dotting the hillside of Addis Ababa and clung to the horizon like a faint, tender bruise.... One young woman delicately balanced a baby on her hip as she arranged her neatly stacked rows of cinnamon sticks and berbere on a thin cloth in front of her, the bags of crushed red pepper bright as rubies.”
“Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” begins in the Addis Ababa of 1974. It takes its title from a stone lion that looks over the city from atop an obelisk – a monument to those killed in the struggle against Italian aggression. The aging Emperor Haile Selassie, known to some as the Lion of Judah, is losing his grip on power. Student demonstrations are being suppressed with violence.
As the novel opens, a middle-aged surgeon named Hailu is removing a police bullet from the back of a student protester. As Hailu knows, his youngest son, Dawit, is also taking part in the protests. Elsewhere in the hospital, the surgeon’s wife is dying of congestive heart failure. Things are bad for Hailu, but they are soon to get much worse.
While the emperor lives a life of medieval pomp in his several palaces, thousands are starving to death in a northern province. A cabal of military officers wants change, but dares not challenge the near-mystical power of the emperor. Their solution is a kind of slow-motion coup. One by one, the emperor’s allies are replaced with officers, until one day they simply lead him to a Volkswagen and drive him away.