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BookMark: "The Shadow King" By Maaza Mengiste

“The Shadow King” begins and ends in a train station in the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa in 1974. In the streets, the uprising that would lead to the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie brews. In the station, an Ethiopian woman named Hirut waits for a Jewish-Italian photographer named Ettore. They plan to meet so she can give him back a box of photographs that document Italy’s invasion and occupation of Ethiopia under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in 1935.

Being from Addis Ababa herself, author Maaza Mengiste grounds her fictional novel in extensive research about this often-forgotten colonial period. Her novel reminds us of the atrocities committed during and after the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, which include Italy’s use of mustard gas and large-scale civilian massacres.  

“The Shadow King” gives readers a unique perspective: the point of view of Ethiopian women who resisted colonial domination. Hirut’s story is the focus of the novel. As an Ethiopian female servant, Hirut’s class, gender, and race position her at the bottom of various power hierarchies. Yet she emerges as the most nuanced and powerful voice of resilience. Similarly, other women rise up as part of Ethiopia’s resistance. Aster, the wife of a general, defies her husband and leads a band of women soldiers in a guerilla war following Italy’s declaration of victory. Fifi, who is fluent in Italian, becomes an informant for the underground resistance.

Along with the stories of these women, Mengiste weaves in the tormented thoughts and incongruous deeds committed by the Jewish-Italian photographer, Ettore. The increasingly harsh racial policies from his homeland terrify him. A victim of Mussolini’s empire himself, he often shudders at the horrific scenes that his Colonel makes him photograph. Nevertheless, he follows orders.

The desperate thoughts of Emperor Haile Selassie punctuate the book. Haunted by the ghost of his dead daughter, he is paralyzed, first, by the Italian invaders and, later, by the uprisings. Only the Italian opera, “Aida,” which he plays over and over again, offers him escape.

Mengiste’s prose is austere and at times majestic. Her words mesmerized me with their evocative descriptions. Woven between narration and description, gripping phrases rise lyrically with the force of proverb. “There is no way out but through it” echoes one such refrain. Many of the most powerful passages explore the places that the mind goes when the body is subjected to extreme forms of agony. For example, Mengiste describes the thoughts of a servant being whipped by an enraged master; and the thoughts of a soldier scrambling through a cloud of poison gas – indeed, “there is no way out but through it.” Like the photographs in the box that Hirut has saved, the pages of this novel are haunted with the ghosts of those who demand to be remembered.

Reviewer Maria Truglio is a professor of Italian and women's studies at Penn State.

“The Shadow King” was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, and named a best book of the year by NPR.