Of the many great traumas of 20th-century Ethiopia – invasion by Mussolini, war with Eritrea, with Sudan, with Somalia, famine after famine, two violent regime changes – arguably the greatest was the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and the replacement of hundreds of years of imperial rule with a totalitarian Marxist state.
Perhaps that’s why Maaza Mengiste, whose family fled when she was four, and who lost three uncles in the revolution,
can’t quite bring herself to name the man who presides over the devastation charted in her first novel.
The emperor keeps his name, but Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam becomes Major Guddu – an interesting choice for anyone who speaks Amharic. Guddu means “the extraordinary things he wrought” –
and in this context it isn’t a compliment. (The name also echoes that of Queen Gudit, whose monastery-burning rampages of around AD960 ushered in Ethiopia’s dark ages.)
Mengiste tells her story through one family – a doctor, Hailu, his two sons Dawit and Yonas, their partners and friends and domestic staff – and, confidently, economically, makes the reader care for them.
Partly this is because she has made the wise decision not to step back too much, explaining factions, ideologies, geopolitics, but instead steps in: this is a book anchored to the body, vivid with smells and fears and violations.
It begins on an operating table, where Hailu is trying to patch up a young protester shot by the emperor’s police; later, after the emperor has fallen, a teenager will be brought to him,
so badly tortured that he risks his life to help her; a major strand of plot involves Dawit collecting the dead bodies abandoned each night on the roadsides, for the hyenas to eat.
Sometimes notes were pinned to their clothes: “I am an enemy of the people. Mother, don’t weep for me. I deserved to die.”
Of course, Mengiste has clear metaphorical points to make: that this revolution was a family affair, turning children against parents, and against each other;
that a country steeped in authoritarianism and religious fatalism (“when you are convinced that anything that happens is the will of God, what is there to do but wait till God has mercy?”)
can suffer a terrible moral passivity at times of crisis; that killing the emperor both decapitated the body politic and, in a country that believed he ruled by divine right, fundamentally altered his people’s relationship to God.
She is good on the resulting lostness, and on how everyone is compromised:
students who marched for change gaze in horror at the system they unintentionally helped to create; children suffer the same punishments as adults;
soldiers find themselves following orders they never imagined could be given – but doing nothing is often not an option either.
Everyone learns the fragility of the moral high ground; everyone has much to forgive, in themselves and others; everyone is tested.
Mengiste is good, too, on the pervading fear that anyone who lived there then remembers – the unspoken tension when someone was late home, the watching of every movement, the firing squads each night, the house-to-house searches, the bodies.
If there is a problem it is that she tries to illustrate too much. There are few artistic attempts to describe this period in Ethiopia:
those who stayed were hobbled by censorship and legions of informants; those who left, by the exigencies of exile and fear for those left behind –
so it’s understandable that her characters eventually become ciphers for particular factions, and a microcosm of everything that happened in the first four years of the revolution.
The narrative coincidences that allow her to hit every major point in those years – the death of Haile Selassie (movingly rendered;
there’s little doubt where her sympathies lie); the moment that began the Red Terror – sometimes strain credulity.
Then again, some of the details that seem the maddest – that a family wanting to bury their children had to pay for the bullets that killed them, for instance – are true.
A more complex issue is the level of violence she portrays, and how much there is of it. It’s as if she can’t help looking, wide-eyed; as if she has spent too much time with the Amnesty reports. Perhaps it’s partly a function of distance.
Mengiste grew up in Nigeria, Kenya and the US, and although she visited Ethiopia often, there is a difference between the distillation of a news story seen from afar or heard from relatives, and the reality of living near the subject of that news story:
it’s not that the violence didn’t happen, but that everyday life, the banality, all of it still goes on.
The trouble with violence is that, fictionally, it gives diminishing returns. In reality, of course, it was immensely effective.
Eventually, by osmosis or by force, we all learned the slogans: “Ethiopia first!” “Revolutionary motherland or death!” And for thousands of people, Guddu/Mengistu’s 14-year rule ushered in only the latter.