Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

Zimbabwean Proverb.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste is a historical fiction book based on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia of 1935-1941. It however begins in 1974, under the backdrop of the Ethiopian revolution to overthrow Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime where an elderly woman named Hirut, is delivering a metal box to Ettore Navarra, an Italian photographer. The epilogue is rich in suspense as it introduces the reader to some of the pieces of the main plot and the theme of remembrance/memory, which runs throughout the entire narration of the book. The metal box contains memories of the Italo-Ethiopian war- photos and letters- taken and written nearly forty years back where Hirut and Ettore had their first encounter in the battlefield, each from different sides of the war.

…inside the box are so many dead that insist on resurrection.

Mengiste soon afterwards takes us back to 1974, immediately before the Italian invasion, to the house of Kidane, an officer in the Emperor’s army who is mobilizing men in preparation for the Italian attack. He lives with his wife, Aster (who is still mourning the death of their son and only child, Tesfaye) together with Hirut, a young maid servant and the cook. It is in these first few pages of the book that we learn that Hirut is an orphan who holds onto one precious possession from her father, a rifle referred to as wujigra that Kidane takes away from her to stock up on his men’s ammunition.

The war begins and the narration shifts to the battlefield. The women, led by Aster are demanding to join the frontlines amidst Kidane’s resistance. They do not want to simply nurse the wounded, feed the soldiers and bury the dead. They are aware that they are capable of more. Kidane commands the Ethiopian front whereas Carlo Fucelli is the commander of the Italian army. Mengiste’s narration alternates between the two sides where we meet Ettore Navarra, the man mandated to document the events of the war through photography while fighting an internal battle concerning the true identity his father.

Meanwhile, Hirut refuses to let go and continues to search for her wujigra. She is the protagonist of the story and seems to have been called to suffering and rarely catches a break. She suffers through rape, violence and other undignifying episodes throughout the war. However, the abandonment of the army by their leader, Haile Selassie marked the shift in the direction of the war, bringing to the fore those pushed to the periphery. A small village boy, Minim, with close resemblance the emperor, rose to become the Shadow King and Hirut and Aster, his trusted guards.

This is why Hirut does not turn her head in the ferenj’s direction even when he says her name. She does not flinch when one of the ascari storms to the barbed-wire fence and threatens to beat her if she does not speak to the Italian. She does not change her breathing or stiffen her body or fail helplessly when the same ascaro yanks open the gate and bends into her face and shouts her name and it is a hard and painful blast in her ear. Instead, she looks up at his face, bloated with futile anger, and calmly waits for whatever comes next. Because there is one thing that neither the ascari nor Fucelli nor this stupid soldato staring at her with a gaping mouth will ever know: that she is Hirut, daughter of Fasil and Getey, feared guard of the Shadow King, and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her.

The Shadow King sought to tell the stories of those majorly excluded by history. Those who have to shout to be remembered and fight to take a space that is/was rightfully theirs. Through Hirut, Aster and all other forgotten women soldiers, the roles and voices of the excluded were brought to light. Maaza states that the story was inspired by her great grandmother who she discovered had taken her father’s gun and enlisted to fight in the war.

She can hear the dead growing louder: we must be heard. We must be remembered. We must be known. We will not rest until we have been mourned.

Ironically, the female soldiers disappear at the end of the narration, including Aster, who was the leader of the female uprising. We are only told that she is Hirut’s neighbour in a small village that cannot be located on the map. The epilogue, I think, is deceiving to the reader. In the beginning, it is easy to expect that the book will depict the exploits and victories of women in action in the Italo-Ethiopian war. That is not the case as Mengiste seeks not to showcase the capabilities of women but to portray a realistic representation of the role of women in the war. She communicates that women participated in the war but did not lead the war, or at least were not allowed to lead it, and even then, had to make an effort not to be forgotten.

…we were the Shadow King. We were those who stepped into a country left dark by an invading plague and gave new hope to Ethiopia’s people.

The book is written in a lyrical and poetic fashion, risking the loss of the plot which is generally weak as it takes a while to find what one expects of the book. The story develops slowly but if you wait long enough, it grows on you. Maaza Mengiste, in my opinion, delivered exactly what she intended in her narration of The Shadow King as a historical fiction and I would highly recommend everyone to pick it up.

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