I still haven’t written about the profound effect that Anthony Bourdain has had on my life, and even in death he has been able to inspire me and push me to seek further knowledge of places that have often been just a passing set of images on a newsreel or in a movie. I recently watched his episode of Parts Unknown that was set in Ethiopia, and it dawned on me, quite embarrassingly, that my knowledge of Ethiopia is limited to Haile Selassie, famine, Live Aid, marathon runners, and amazing vegetarian food. So, the first thing I did was research contemporary Ethiopian writers and request them from the library. I am taking recommendations, so please don’t hesitate to comment below with more!
I started with Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath The Lion’s Gaze as it jumped right out at me, with it being historical fiction and based on a very dark era of Ethiopian modern history. The book is divided into three parts and is set in Addis Ababa from 1974 until the late 1970’s. Famine in the countryside and a huge divide between the rich and the poor lead to social unrest, and a violent military coup that deposes, and (possibly) kills Haile Selassie and a lot of his cabinet and followers. What follows is a terrifying military dictatorship where thousands and thousands are imprisoned, tortured, murdered, and forced to live along the rules of the Derg, a Stalinist type of military junta.
Beneath The Lion’s Gaze is the story of Hailu, a prominent surgeon, his sons Yonas and Dawit, Yonas’ wife Sara and daughter Tizita, as well as their friends, and neighbors. Dawit joins the resistance as a young and idealist student, while the rest of his family try to keep their heads down and get through life as well as they can without bringing attention to themselves. This later proves impossible for Hailu and Sara who join in the struggle in their own ways. The novel starts with Hailu’s wife dying in hospital amidst the rising unrest, and weaves family dynamics and tragedies with the state of the country through the narration of different voices.
This is historical fiction and the author mentions at the end of the novel that while some of the characters are real, most are fictional, some based on real-life figures with a lot of creative freedom. However, the brutality and absolute horrors that the regime subjected on the people of Ethiopia are entirely true, as is the work of the underground resistance depicted in the novel. Beneath The Lion’s Gaze is a beautifully written story of how a family survives under a dictatorship, and the choices one has to make to survive. I fell in love with Maaza Mengiste’s writing, and her stunning way of using imagery amidst tragedy and darkness. I’m really looking forward to reading her second novel when she finishes it.
I will be reading Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears next, and will aim for some non-fiction too. I have actually owned Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone for a few years now but haven’t read it, so that one is on the list too! I just realized Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote a novel on Haile Selassie, so I shall be requesting that one too.