The Weight of Karma--Beneath the Lion's Gaze Reconsidered

One of the difficulties with posting a review of a book nearly as soon as you have read it is that you've given the work no time to breathe, no time to work whatever changes it might work on your thinking about matters.  One of the problems with delaying is that you may procrastinate to the point that you do not review--in some cases that would be no matter at all--but in this case it would be to deprive the reader of the encouragement to take up a new book.

I'm pleased to say that Beneath the Lion's Gaze stands up to retrospective visits.  That is, the complexity of the story and of the issues dealt with within in are such that they can sustain multiple visits, multiple reconsiderations.  Further, I can say that, while it is early in the year, I think this may be the book or one of the books that serves as the yardstick for the year.  Just as The Vagrants with its richly textured characters, plot, and themes of love and redemption (or lack thereof) continues to resonate in my mind, this book joins that one and a few others--Say You're One of Them, A Fine Balance, and The White Tiger as a window into another world and into another way of seeing.

I intend, at this point to launch into some details of the book that will be distressing to those of you who wish to read it.  So I caution you--go and get the book before you click on the read more link that follows.  I really want to talk about this book in its fullness and see no recourse other than to reveal details that I probably should not.  But I shall reveal them behind the screen.  The scrupulous reader will go and get the book from the library or buy it (this is one that I'm adding to the "buy list").

The book is short, but tightly plotted with an involuted and threaded plot that weaves together the death of Hailu's wife, the illness of his daughter, and his treatment of the daughter of another who comes to him as a victim of torture.  What most interests me is the way that Ms. Mengiste deftly handles extremely difficult issues and shows the ultimate truth of the statement that one may not do evil that good may result.  In each case where evil--whether natural evil, or human imputed evil is chosen, the consequences continue to ripple out and affect all of the characters.  For example, the good Colonel needs to teach someone a lesson and so sends that person to jail; due to a bureaucratic mix-up that person is then conveyed to the most notorious torturer in the ranks.  While wanting to do an ostensible good-stabilize the government--the means chosen devastates many  lives.

Again and again we see this happen.  Mickey sees the devastation of the famine in Ethiopia and feels the need to do something about it.  When the time comes, he chooses the wrong thing to do about it and helps to propel Ethiopia on its downward spiral.

Yet both Mickey and the Colonel are ultimately seen as fallible, weak human beings.  They are given the dignity of persons.  That is what is so lovely about this entire book--the tremendous warmth and compassion that Ms. Mengiste has for all of her characters.  Even though the negligence of the Emperor was culpable and the famine that resulted an atrocity, still Ms. Mengiste paints him as one who had come to believe too much in his own myth and who failed to see a way to change things--he was foolish and frail--culpable still--but human, like us all.

All of these things have karmic weight, they go around and come around and steam-roll the characters and Ethiopia itself.  But Ms. Mengiste deftly separates the evil of actions from the dignity of people.  With a surgical precision she is able to separate bone and sinew and show us at the same time the evil action and the good motive.  (My grandfather, and many other can tell you about what is paved with good intentions.)

When one begins to pull at the threads of the story one begins to find that there are no threads--this remarkable cloth is all of piece, it is not possible to separate one piece from another because it is a single thread warp and weft which, when woven so precisely creates the moving tapestry we see.  Hailu's granddaughter's illness, Selam's illness, the torture victim, all sing together one theme, one story, they are bound together as part of the skein that is Hailu's life.

Everyone knows everyone and everything that happens happens to everyone.  In a sense we're seeing the microcosm of Donne's "No man is an islande."  We see how each event, each circumstance, each weighing of the human heart affects events.  And we see also the vast karmic weight that comes swinging back to crush those who do not take it into account.

I may have more to say later--as I mentioned, the book resonates.  The echoes and emanations--or how is it our mystical supreme court puts it--"emanations and penumbras," --spill out and around and carry one in and back out again.  It's really quite astounding.  I can't wait to see if the effect is the same after several weeks or months, but I suspect that it shall be.  Hailu and his family have become part of my own literary family--they will never go away.


  1. Steven - I've bought the book and look forward to reading later in the year. I may have to fortify myself for this story.

  2. Dear Anthony,

    It may be so. While not as endurable as Uwem Akpan (and I don't mean that to sound as negtive as it does) there is intense emotion, difficulty, and pain. I am reminded of Li, and yet, even in that pain and suffering there is something luminous--there is warmth, there is caring, there is humanity--again like Li. The effort is ultimately worth the trip and the trip itself is made more pleasant by the company--though one could never say that the events themselves are pleasant.

    I'll look forward to your response when you get around to it.



  3. Dear Anthony,

    That should have said "unendurable"

    Ah well.



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