Published in 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze – Maaza Mengiste’s debut novel – is about the Ethiopian revolution which begun in 1974, during the last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s long rule. At the time, Haile Selassie’s government had lost public confidence following a famine in Wello province. The story begins as a young man lies on the operating table with a bullet in his back. He is a student protestor, among the many that are involved in the uprising to throw Selassie out of power.
The attending physician, Hailu, has two sons, one of whom is almost the same age as this patient. His young son, Dawit is a student and has joined the revolting groups. His older son, Yonas is a history professor with a wife and daughter, and he shares his father’s contempt for the burning, looting, and the increasingly violent rallies that have characterized the revolt. Hialu, thinks
“it is a passing phase……………..do these children think they can take down a monarchy……? Do they think all they have to do is raise a few signs and the world will change? That their ideas can stop bullets?’
This is what dominates the first chapters of the book, the emperor’s fast spiral to downfall, but the author manages to weave in the physician’s wife long hospitalization due to congestive heart failure, a fatal injury that almost claims Yonas’ daughter and the friendship between Dawit and Mickey, the son of a poor neighbor. Alternating with these sections are moving passages seen from the emperor’s view during his imprisonment, with only his pet lions ( the conquering lion of Judah was a symbol of Ethiopian monarchy) for company-
“soldiers were posted outside his door, which was locked in triplicate and then chained. Their fear of him was heartbreaking, compounding his loneliness and the largeness of this empty space was trapped inside. They walked backwards into the room whenever they escorted his old servant inside with food, doubly armed……… they scurried out as quickly as they could…………….the mournful whimpers of his old lion, Tojo lulled him to sleep and he tried to make himself forget the garden just outside his window which he was no longer allowed to walk in. Under the weight of this solitude, all of the emperor’s hours, minutes and seconds blurred and ran together like a slow dying river’.
After the emperor’s death (he smothered to death with a pillow), the novelist turns her attention to life under the Derg government ( Marxixst military confederation). Instead of the positive change the people had rebelled for, what comes is an era of terror in which many people lose their lives. The scenes here are heartbreaking, as a series of atrocities seem to go and on, and are glimpsed through the doctor’s family. The author shows what a confusing time it was, as one character says of the chaos “when the Italians were here, at least you could tell who the enemy was…” Maaza makes it clear that the revolution changed everyone, the Derg turned against the people, the permanent state of living in fear crippled everyone. The suffering is tangible and does not spare the Hailu family either.
When Hailu is jailed, the tension between his two sons exacerbates; “selfish and irresponsible’, Yonas says of Dawit, and Dawit shouts back “obedient as a trained dog”. But in the end, it is very evident that they were wrong about each other, and what had driven them apart brings them closer to keep the family together. I enjoyed reading the book, and one can’t help but feel empathy for the anguished characters portrayed in the story.
Maaza Mengiste is an Ethiopian writer, born in Addis Ababa, but her family fled the country during the revolution when she was just four years old. She currently stays in New York, and has an MFA in creative writing from New York University. The novel was the Fiction runner up in the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.