“Once, I was beloved of God, the King of Kings. I was the Conquering Lion of Judah, a descendant of King Dawit. My blood, rich and red, is kin to that other King of Kings, the most Beloved. I ruled my kingdom in honor of His. We were as we were because He was. In this kingdom of men, angels walked amongst us, flesh and spirit side by side, fiery swords next to spears. Wings beat back bullets, bent Italian rifles, flattened tanks. Under a poisonous rain dripping from warplanes flying as low as insects, we have run and triumphed, shielded by feathers, our skin still whole and splendid under the sun.”
Addis Ababa stands at the proud yet conflicted heart of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, the ambitious Ethiopian tale by Maaza Mengiste. Set in the revolutionary throes of 1974, emperor Haile Selassie laments as he is forcibly removed from position due to festering discontent over the corruption and famine under his rule. As the military steps in and the merciless Derg establishes itself, conflict and uncertainty lead Ethiopia and its people into both patriotic and familial confusion. It is under the lion’s gaze of Ethiopia that Ms. Mengiste pens the poetic portrait of one family and their fierce attempt to hold on to each other and the land they so love.
Hailu is an unassuming, simple man. Though he holds post as a prominent physician, Hailu downplays his medical expertise to quietly concentrate on his increasingly difficult role as paterfamilias. Once his ailing, beloved wife Selam slips beyond the power of medicine and prayer, so too does his relationship with his discordant sons. And as the new regime penetrates the hallowed inner walls of Hailu’s hospital, their sinister presence also slips into the sacred spaces of his home and family.
With eight years between them, Hailu’s sons Yonas and Dawit are at odds with each other and their homeland. Facing the unjust onslaught of the Derg and its factions, the elder Yonas opts for prayer while the young Dawit simmers and burns with a call to action. Afire with youthful indignation, Dawit reluctantly pulls away from his family disgusted by his perceptions of their apathy. Yet unbeknownst to Dawit, each carries a vicious passion easily rivaling his own and it is this profound intensity that provides the staggering spokes that spin Mengiste’s story.
Ms. Mengiste has an enviable patience with the pen that lifts her characters and settings to incredibly convincing heights. Methodically managing a trifecta of character, time and place, Mengiste cautiously manipulates each to mirror the turbulence shaking the very foundation of Ethiopia. Intimately fleshed-out, her myriad of colorful characters are muscled and precise, providing the perfect poetic device to navigate the tense emotional and geographical parameters of the story.
Though it’s hard to use the word tender for a work so jarring, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze achieves. Mengiste’s characters offer heart-rending performances in this astounding debut drawn from her own family history. Deftly capturing the powerful love of family and motherland, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is an ardent reminder of relentless spirit and what it means to truly be free.
*Maaza Mengiste is a graduate of the University of Michigan. Support your local bookstores and universities. It matters!
-Post by Megan Shaffer
-NPR’s Weekend Edition: In Ethiopia, A Monarch Falls in ‘The Lion’s Gaze’
-Maaza Mengiste’s Biography on BookBrowse
-Stars of Tomorrow in New York Books