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Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

I have been meaning to read Maaza Mengiste’s book Beneath the Lion’s Gaze since I read her interview online some weeks ago. You can imagine my excitement when the hardcover book fell in my hand this past weekend. I started reading it enthusiastically, enjoying a sense of privilege of holding a book that hasn’t made it to Addis bookshops yet. Well, I haven’t been disappointed. It is a very well done book, with an evocative and moving narrative, and creative twist that made me want to read it without interruption.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze deals with the horrific period of Ethiopia’s history, the wake of 1974 revolution. Through the life of one family, the author illuminates a vivid picture of both personal and historical- of the country in its momentous period of history.
Though it has been said for some time that there has been reluctance on the part of Ethiopians to talk about this painful period, there seems to be a change recently as numbers of works dealing with the period have started to come out. Books such as Nega Mezlekia’s Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, Kiflu Tadesse’s To kill a Generation, Hama Tuma’s The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor, and Mulugeta Gudeta’ Evil Days have dealt with this traumatic period of the country’s recent past all in their own ways. This might indicate that we are no longer hiding from the goings on of our holocaust, a sign that we are coming to terms with it.
Maaza was only two years old when the revolution broke out and only four when she left Ethiopia (as I have come to know from her interviews) yet she managed to weave memoir, history, and reporting to tell the story in an intimate scale. Even for those with firsthand account of events, memories could fade over the years. Yet impressively the author has summarized events as accurately as possible, researching them thoroughly and recounting them carefully. The result of a hard work! The story has a dramatic aspect to it as it is a work of fiction, yet it is realistic in painting the collateral damage of the revolution that went wrong. The effect it has brought on ordinary life. The loss of country, the loss of innocence, personal freedom and one’s loved ones. How a people drained by centuries of feudalism, stir themselves dream of freedom, and then to see the dream that almost became a reality, changed into a nightmare.
The main character of the book, Hailu is an England trained medical doctor works at Prince Mekonen Hospital (later turned by the Derg into Black Lion Hospital).He has a passion for his work bordered on stubbornness. Like the educated people of the time, Hailu was fortunate enough to receive gift and advice from the Emperor himself at special ceremony to honor young graduates returned from abroad. “Do not waste your hours and minutes on foolish dreams. Make Ethiopia proud” the Emperor told him. True to the advice, he has proved himself as dedicated doctor who has worked at the hospital for nearly two decades. Yet the Empeoror,such a fatherly figure who has made it his own personal task to send abroad and educate young people has become reviled. He was accused of making the country slide back into Middle Ages.

Through Hailu and his two sons, the book shows us how the country came to descend into madness in a movement that started in ‘passionate declaration” on the need for new constitution and freedom of expression and ‘the removal of an old, tired monarch’.
Emperor Haile Selassie, once absolute ruler of an empire, was reduced to sitting impotently by while his relatives and close advisers were arrested by a bunch of upstart young soldiers. A passage from the book illuminated it vividly. “Emperor Haile Selassie handed a pen to the old servant and watched the man tremble. Write, he ordered. Write so they are reminded, so that they know the Conquering Lion of Judah still sits on his throne. Tell them I have not left my people, that I rule still, over eighty years old and wise, kin to God’s most blessed of kings. The emperor looked outside his window at his lions pacing in their cages, their growls like far-off thunder. We have not our finished time. The servant, eyes cast low, bowed. Call the minster of the pen, the emperor said, looking to the red sun failing in the distance. He will write for us. Call him there. The servant whispered: He is gone. Where is he? The emperor asked. Where are they all? Where are my people?”
The turmoil is mirrored by the doctor’s wife deteriorating health condition with congestive heart failure. Even before the terror crept in, his wife was crushed and trodden, she wanted to die. ‘It is silent and I am alone’ are the poignant words that she uttered clinging to her husband’s hand. Her husband promised not to make any attempts to nurse her back to life but it was a promise hard to keep. It was 1974 and nothing he has learned ever prepared him for day ahead of him. Her death would introduce him to the reality of the pain of loss yet to come.
Left to fend for himself and his sons, Hailu feared for his son, Dawit, ‘who also wanted to enter the fray,’ to join the underground resistance movement. A constant worry for the father as his and his friend’s activism intensified. There was his younger Yonas, a thirty-two-year old man with a daughter and a wife, who has had a painful memory of his mother’s death, seeing her how she stopped taking the medicine Hailu has prescribed her. The sight of His father’s and brother’ consequent silence and sense of impending doom made his pain worse.
The narrative unfolds in alternating chapters, as Hailu and those around him found themselves in sense of outrage and bewilderment by the events unfolding. Beating, torture and murder of civilians by the army became almost routine. One occurrence was particularly agonizing and unbearable. ‘A girl wrapped in clear plastic sheet ‘
‘Clumps of hair had been pulled out of her head. Blood had soaked through her trousers and bright, flowered blouse. Her swollen feet hung off one end of the gurney. All of this was covered and displayed in like a butcher’s oversized trophy. Seeping out of the opening of the plastic bag was the smell of excrement and burnt flesh, shit and cruelty, a new obscenity.’
The irony of was that Hailu has been ordered to report to jail after helping her.
In the continuing chapters, Addis Ababa has turned into city where of raining bombs, and I could hear the rumbles and feel the way people’s lives were shattered as I turned the pages; the announcements of the arrests and even executions of intellectuals and city leaders, and increasingly, students have become quite common. ‘Addis Ababa was buried in dark clouds of gun smoke. Waves of arrests swept swiftly through the city. Bullets fell like rain. Blood flowed in currents. Snipers and firing squads worked relentlessly,’ recounts the book. Gunshot was heard every night and t and bodies found in the street.
Thousands came to be murdered, emotional structures crumbled; friends and relatives driven into exile. No one in the country was able to swerve far enough to avoid a collision with Mengistu Haile Maryam, portrayed in the book as Major Gudu. The cellars of the National Palace and other places of detention remain filled with people who have been held, without trail and without hope of a fair hearing. The general atmosphere of grim desolation would be altered by a last-minute renewal, the family’s tragedy transforming into a promise of collective hope.
Maaza passionately re-creates the tumultuous years for us. This is powerful, heart wrenching, historically informative book. The language is so rich full of description without being overwhelming.

Categories: Books
  1. Tsion
    February 17, 2010 at 12:27 am

    I am reading this book. I love it.
    Maaza did a great job.
    Please don’t tell us the whole story or the ending. Don’t spoil it for me.

  2. Getachew Teklu
    April 1, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    Great book to read about the past and the future. Thank you Maaza for this great novel. Our future depends on our past. We can’t ignore the past to build the future.

  3. surafel
    April 3, 2010 at 6:11 am

    I finished it a while ago. Very well written! It gives us an insight about the political crisis of that time and teaches us the importance of giving our fellow citizens the right to express their views freely. When one person has too much power so many things can go wrong. Anyway, I recommend reading this book to everybody!

  1. March 7, 2010 at 2:53 pm

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