Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

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Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A relentless vision of a family struggling through the political turmoil of a revolution. Brutal, but compassionate.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099539926

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Ethiopia 1974. Emperor Haile Selassie is an old man barely clinging on to power. Still thought of, even by those rebelling against him, as a demi-god that they daren't disrespect let alone challenge he has held the country in thrall to his aristocratic government supported by the violence and repression of the army and the police.

A decade and a half of rising inflation, lack of economic reform and widespread corruption ran headlong into a famine affecting much of the country, especially the provinces of Welo and Tigray, which was somehow concealed from the outside world. Africa had yet to hit the headlines of despair and desperation in the light of repeated failed harvests. The world media of 1974 had none of the resources it has today, when every teenager with a mobile phone is a potential cameraman and reporter. Secrets could still be kept.

Political unrest during the early '70s rested mainly with an urban elite agitating for a parliamentary bureaucracy. This changed when the army rebelled. In January 1974 the Territorial Army's Fourth Brigade at Negele in the southern province of Sidamo mutinied, protesting the lack of food and clean water. Taking the commanding officer hostage they appealed directly to Haile Selassie. With no improvements forthcoming discontent spread to other units. A month later civilian grievances (increased fuel prices, school curriculum changes, low salaries for public workers) added to a volatile mix, shaken further by the famine and demands for wholesale land reform. It could only lead to a final demand for an entirely new political system. Riots erupted in Addis Ababa.

Cosmetic changes to government, the replacement of unpopular ministers with others of similar backgrounds, minor revisions to the constitution had little effect. Price restraint did manage to calm matters on the street, but the military was becoming increasingly factionalised. Out of the melee emerged a body of some 120 junior ranking soldiers calling itself the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army , soon to be known to Ethiopia and to history as "the Derg" (Amharic for "committee" or "council,").

They took effective control, arresting anyone who had been close to the Emperor, whilst continuing to profess their loyalty.

Slowly they dismantled the imperial system of government, while their own agenda crept ever further to the left. By the time Selassie was arrested in the September, the Derg was already under attack from civilian and student groups wanting a popular government rather than the communist military regime that was being imposed by brutal force.

This is the backdrop to Mengiste's powerful story of an ordinary family caught up in the violence what is now euphemistically referred to as "regime change".

Hailu is a doctor. Increasingly treating students with gunshot wounds acquired in battles with the police, he worries for his own Dawit. The younger of two brothers, Dawit was always his mother's son, uncontrollable, prone to outbursts of violence often against his older, stronger brother. Fear was something Dawit did not understand.

Fear it becomes clear is one of the many things that Dawit does not understand. His political activism is born of youth and naivety.

The brother, Yonas, is older, married, with a young daughter and a wife who mourns two unborn children. He teaches at the university and tries to focus on living a life, keeping away from danger, surviving to help those he holds most dear.

He is pulled in all directions by his father, his brother, his sad easily distraught wife Sara, and his mother Selam who lies dying in his father's intensive care unit.

Mengiste shows us how all of these people become caught up in the revolution, occasionally departing to take us into Selassie's palace and later his prison and his mind. But Dawit is the hub around everything else spins. His decisions are the ones that bring all that follows into play. Decisions that are made as deliberate conscious efforts to fight for what he believes in, and decisions that are instinctive reactions to a dark situation – pulling an executed body out of a melee because "I know him" is not an act of bravery, but one of heartfelt necessity. It would be too wrong to even contemplate not taking the boy home for burial.

The situation in the country spirals out of control. The executions turn into massacres. Innumerable people are taken into tiny gaols never to come out. Torture is state sanctioned and age or youth are no deterrent. Bodies litter the streets; mass graves appear at the roadsides. Local kebele committees enforce communality, empty properties are nationalized, food is rationed, private enterprise is suppressed. The promised land reform doesn't quite work out.

Hailu continues to work in the hospital, trying to hold it together in the face of pressure to treat on the basis of rank rather than clinical need, trying to perform with ever decreasing stocks of medicine.

And Sara has problems of her own.

Meanwhile, Mickey, Dawit's childhood friend who was like a second brother to him has joined the army, and his girlfriend Lily talks of going to study in Cuba.

The plot meanders slowly but relentlessly towards a conclusion that cannot come… of course the tale will stop at a point in time, but any point in time is just a pause before the next one. Nothing is ever, ultimately, resolved.

The tone is bleakly full of betrayal and strained loyalties. Family. Friendship. Love. Hatred. Politics. Religion. Violence lurks behind every page. But there is compassion too. There is understanding of how such things come to pass, and empathy for those who find themselves on the wrong side.

It's a story told almost from the inside. The author's family fled the country when she was four years old, but three of her Uncles died in fighting. A wariness remains in the anonymity granted to perpetrators of the worst of the horrors, names clearly changed to protect the guilty (or the innocent that they can still reach). It's a powerful story whose strength lies in the layering of detail, upon detail, building a picture of a time and place many of us have led slide from our collective memory.

Read it – lest we forget.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for more on the struggles on the African continent try Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun or War Child: A Boy Soldier's Story by Emmanuel Jal. Or just to prove that sometimes Africa can be a happy place try Robyn Scott’s Twenty Chickens for a Saddle.

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