Maaza Mengiste — Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2011)

Setting: Addis Ababa during the military coup/revolution of 1974.

Living is dangerous these days.”

What it’s about: A country slowly slipping into brutality, and how ordinary people are driven to resistance.

This beautiful book starts gently from the perspective of Emperor Haile Selassie as his reign ends and of one family as their normal life slowly crumble but takes on a breathless pace as the military regime tightens its grip on the contrary.

In the most brutal and powerfully written parts the father of the family, Hailu, to whom we have been introduced as a dignified, caring and peaceful doctor, is tortured – we see how soul and body are broken, only to be salvaged in the final pages. What we see are perfectly measured lines (and it’s not easy to write torture scenes without going in to far in either direction clinical or abstract) that show how the rational mind is slowly worn down.

The writing deals with the brutality of dictatorship with delicate subtlety. As when people waiting outside the jail to see their loved ones within, when someone arrives to turn themselves in with her suitcase:

She tottered on high heels.
They told me to turn myself in. How do I get in?” she said.
A sympathetic murmur lifted from the crowd. They cleared her path to the door.
The young woman went to the door and began to knock.
“Why are you here?” The security guard asked. “Don’t you know what they do?”
“My husband is inside,” the young woman said. “They told me that if I didn’t come, they’d kill him.” She bit her lip. “I don’t know what he did. “

Then time seems to stand still:

…they watched the sunburn pale, then yellow, red and gold in a darkening horizon. Then the front door swung open just long enough for three soldiers to grab the young woman and drag her inside.

Like The Yacoubian building, we follow a young man’s path – the doctor’s son Dawit – from optimism to activism to violence – boys with sympathy but also honesty about his flaws. The excitement of the marchers,

One day, he would tell his father this: that the eyes die first, that we make our way to dust and ash blindly. Dawit would tell of the night he learned of this, the night they found the still breathing woman by the road, her broken bones and open wounds covered in grass and dirt.”

I won’t spoil it, but Dawit then engages in a unique, gruesome yet incredibly beautiful act of resistance against the brutal dictatorship.

Statue of Emporer Haile Selassie in Addis. Photo credit: flickr_Göran Höglund

Why you should read it: This is one of those novels that can make a remote moment of history personal and poignant in a way that history cannot.

The writing melds rich symbolism with hard facts that add colour to how a brutal regime takes shape:

There was a new jail rising on the horizon near his home, a slab of concrete and steel carved into the forest where Dawit was once played amongst tall trees and thick grass.”

How people turn against each other like the informers of the police station when one brother goes to find his little newspaper-selling brother — innocent but taken away — and the policeman assumes he is just another informer:

If you want to report someone just drop the name in the box over there.” He pointed to a square white metal box near the entrance.

A tiny detail but so sinister.

As darkness falls upon the country you can feel the threat growing around every character like when a group of soldiers walk past one heroine:

One looked up, settled his gaze on Sara for so long his companions moved on ahead of him.”

Or when one older woman tries to come another in distress:

Emama Seble massively seemed to sift through words, choosing carefully.”

The same character exchanges just a few words with another and reveals that these two characters are rich history outside the book that we will never know.

Lion of Juddah, Addis. Photo credit: flickr_pierre

You’ll like this if you liked: Epic family dramas during national upheavals like Vikram Seth’s A suitable Boy or Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. Darkness at noon — for the breaking of good men.

Alone in Berlin – for the incredibly powerful and moving acts of resistance in the book (that I will leave the reader to discover) that touches on the very essence of humanity.

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