Beneath the Lion's Gaze--Maaza Mengiste

I have, after long reading, finished the book.  It is perhaps too early to give a coherent review--books like this one sometimes need to linger on the palate (as it were) before one can truly give them their due.  Be that as it may, I'm going to try to give a sense of the work.  Like Uwem Akpan, I expect that my sense of the work will change over time, and if I'm correct about it, more likely to change for the better, although, as you'll see, I'm starting from a very good place with the book.

Ms. Mengiste gives us the story of the transition of the Ethiopian Government from rule under a muddled Emperor with vaguely beneficent intent, to rule by a military Junta becoming progressively more aligned with Soviet and Cuban powers. She tells this story through the family of Hailu, a doctor in Addis Ababa.  Hailu has two sons--Dawit and Yonas, a daughter-in-law Sara, a wife Selam, and a number of other hangers-on who are, for all intents and purposes family.

The book starts in the last moments of Haile Selassi's reign over Ethiopia--the famine has expanded and taken in much of the country, and Selassi and his ministers are ineffectual at doing anything about it.  War looms on several fronts--Eritrea and Somalia, and there is rising discontent among the population as they learn more and more about the horrors that are afflicting their country.

Mickey and Dawit are friends from the time of Mickey's first appearance on the scene when Dawit protected him from the derision of others. Mickey opts to enter the military because, although he is brighter than Dawit, his opportunities in the relatively stratified society under the Emperor are few.  He hasn't the money to buy his way into the university.  Going off to military service, he is assigned to the famine areas and becomes converted to the philosophy of change.

I don't particularly want to go into the story line any more because it would begin to give away essential elements of the plot and the development.  At this point suffice to say that the Junta begins and conditions for those who were well-off, at least, degenerate.

What is remarkable is how compassionately the story is told all around. Everyone is treated with the dignity of a person, even when those persons do not give the same courtesy as others.  Haile Selassi is seen as a largely confused old man who has come to believe and invest in his own myth-making venture; Mickey is seen as one who wills good but has no reasonable channel to express it.  Even the monster of the piece Geddu, is ultimately shown as somewhat sympathetic, despite his atrocities.

The language is nuanced, balanced, beautifully attuned to its subject.  And have no doubt about it, the subject for the most part is very hard indeed.  Like Akpan, not even the children are spared in the relentless look at human brutality.  In fact, the only false moment in the book, the only stumble that I detected in my read, came about exactly because Ms. Mengiste wanted to cushion the blow, the shock of what had been written--and even if the passage were true--there's no way of saying it is not--it rings as false amid all the other sometimes harshly realistic detail.

One minor fault in a first work of this length can be considered nothing less than a truly remarkable accomplishment.  Ms. Mengiste introduces us to some truly memorable, well-rounded, living and breathing characters.  Her prose is at times poetic, even approaching rhapsodic, but only as required.  It is otherwise dead-on in this relentless exposition of the potential for cruelty that underlay even the best intentions.

****1/2--Highly Recommended--go out and get it so we can talk about it.


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