Book Review: Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

If I had to stack Beneath the Lion’s Gaze on a shelf, I’d put it in the “historical fiction” category.  The Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste’s first novel is more about history than story, more about facts than poetry, more about politics than love.  In a recent interview on World Literature Today, Mengiste confessed that she intended to write a detached nonfiction account of Ethiopia’s Derg regime, but instead discovered that informing audiences of this gruesome era through one family’s story was much more powerful and true.

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I met Mengiste at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January.  Mengiste was a strong and wise voice throughout several sessions, including a panel on African women writers.  I remember Mengiste and other women on the panel pushing back against the label “African.”  Why must you label us as African writers, instead of just writers? The women claimed.  Rising diaspora voices like Mengiste offer literary insight into diverse places and people.  With feet in the States and their homelands, such writers have the unique opportunity to tell a particular, localized story in a language that is accessed around the world.

 

Mengiste’s story is about an Addis Ababa doctor named Hailu, and his extended family’s encounters with the communist Derg regime that seized rule from Ethiopia’s kingly monarchy which ended with the reign of Haille Sellasie.  One of Hailu’s sons Dawit is a rebel who fights the Derg.  Another, Yonas, is a mid-aged father trying to guard his family from the political forces in the city.  These characters are just a trumpet for history to flow, and Mengiste crafts them as such.

 

The scene in which Yonas searches for Dawit’s body at the coroner’s office, and is warned that, should the body be found, Yonas must pay 125 birr for the bullet that killed his brother, powerfully breathes life into modern myth regarding Ethiopia’s former government.  I have heard from so many Ethiopians on so many accounts that the Derg was so bloody and ruthless, they forced victims to pay for their own bullets.  This scene, where Mengiste writes modern myth into a fictional, believable story, is one of the novel’s most moving passages.

 

Unfortunately, I found Beneath the Lion’s Gaze out of touch with lower- to middle- class Ethiopians.  Since Hailu is a doctor in the highly stratified post-WWII Addis Ababa, he and those in his family travel by their personal Volkswagon, live in a large house with separate bedrooms for each child, and eat meat often in the novel.  As a volunteer in rural Ethiopia with good friends in Addis, I find this setup highly unbelievable for most Ethiopians at the time.

 

Furthermore, Megiste’s American perspective is evident in the ways she describes various elements of Ethiopian life.  For example, in one scene Yonas leaves work early to tuck his daughter, Tizzie, into bed, and to pray with her before she sleeps.  However, most Orthodox Christians I know understand prayer to be much more corporate and universal than the personalized practices of us in the West; i.e. for many Orthodox believers prayer is repeating the same phrases at the beginning of every meal and crossing one’s body out of reverence for God.

 

It was difficult for me to finish Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.  I wanted to hear a story that better sympathized with both the rebels and the fighters during this difficult time in Ethiopian history.  Mengiste’s to the point prose told this complex story clearly, but it left very little room for humanness to grow.  Though the external arc of the story expertly wove together history and place, the internal emotional arc left me feeling empty.

 

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze should be a must-read for any travelers coming to Ethiopia, Cold War historians, or African enthusiasts.  As one of the only internationally published Ethiopian writers, Mengiste’s upcoming novel on Ethiopia’s Italian occupation promises an informing experience similar to Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.  Camille Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly is still my favorite novel set in Ethiopia. Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze are waitlisted contenders.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

  1. I agree! This book left me feeling so conflicted, and I tried to write about it on goodreads, but ended up giving up. I’m glad it takes on a topic that most Ethiopians don’t want to talk about, but I too found myself thinking that Hailu’s family seemed very unrealistic, especially compared to today’s Ethiopia. Nice review, friend! 🙂

  2. “Since Hailu is a doctor in the highly stratified post-WWII Addis Ababa, he and those in his family travel by their personal Volkswagon, live in a large house with separate bedrooms for each child, and eat meat often in the novel. As a volunteer in rural Ethiopia with good friends in Addis, I find this setup highly unbelievable for most Ethiopians at the time.” I think your view on Hailu family is a bit wrong. It is true that now in Ethiopia, it is difficult to be a salaried person. But during post WWII addis ababa, the case was completely diffrent. A graduate with bachelor degree gets 450 ETBirr which is was much huge. My police relative was telling us that his 70 birr salary/month could buy 5 quintals of teff (in todays price this means 7500 ETbirr). At that time, if you are an employee, you had a chance to get house and car on lone. But it is true the number of people who were employed if very small. Now, a police starts salary with 500 birr can’t but even half quintal of teff.

  3. Sorry for the spelling errors in my first comment. As a young person who only saw the current government, I have observed how inflation have make the salaried people the new poor as time passes particularly after 2005 election. The government did huge infrastucture investment but that mainly affected people with fixed salary. Have you asked one of the favourite wedding songs of the previous time? (It was like our leddy should be proud since she married a teacher- a teacher represents the salaried(employed people). Since at that time, if you are an employee, you will be valued high.

    • Hi Daniel, Thanks for reading. I value your input on the state of poverty during the Derg regime. I live in a small town in rural Ethiopia and even the most well-off people in town I know face major economic challenges. It’s hard for me to imagine a time when people had more in Ethiopia, but I am glad to hear it existed and trust that the quality of lives for all Habesha will improve as Ethiopia becomes more competitive in the global market. Thanks again.

  4. HI Amanda,

    I know that your time volunteering in Adaba gives you a perspective that most people don’t have regarding life in Ethiopia, in rural Ethiopia and also poverty that even some Ethiopians might not have. However, I have to stress that you should not really take your experiences as a measuring tool to measure everything about Ethiopia.

    I have to defer to what Daniel has said in the above post about the urban salaried people in Ethiopia in the 70s. The truth is most African countries are poorer in real terms today than they were 30 years ago. This is a fact that is supported by research done by the UN and also could easily be proven by converting the value of the birr back 40 years ago in real terms to today’s value. In the case of Ethiopia, after 17 years of the Derg, the economy contracted year after year with few respites of growth, and by the end, people were much poorer in real terms than they were during the Emperor’s time. My parents who were teachers never ceased to tell me when their salary could pay for much more in 60s and 70s than in the 90s. They could then afford luxuries that I as a boy could only imagine of like buying new published books from the Penguin’s Publishers collections for 2-3 birr, after taking care of all other expenses they had need for.

    Where I live in the UK, the quality of life of people has really increased over the past fifty years, and is vastly superior to what it was a 100 years ago – this is true for the lower and middle class. The landed upper class might have been relatively impoverished over the past hundred years. Developments in health, agriculture and technology has meant that in the past 100 years in Western Europe has meant that people could afford to eat more meat, drink more milk and be far healthier. It will be erroneous to equate the living standards of the majority has remained static over generations here in Europe, where it has obviously gone up – as it is to hold a static view as to the poverty or wealth of a portion of society in Ethiopia over the years.

    I beg of you not to fall into one of the traps that so often those who travel to another country fall into. What you come to know about Ethiopia through your experience there is restricted by the space and time that you are in the country. To know more about it you have to read its history. Maaza’s book might be a historical fiction, but does cover some historical events as they were when our country had fewer or about 20 million people, and a per capita income that was in real terms comparable to most middle income countries today. Though, I agree the book has its defects, I do not agree with your off the cuff assessments on what (upper) middle class life could have looked like back in 70s.

    The truth is I hardly feel I know the country even though I spent much of my life there, and I still would want to read more and more about it as I grow older, and each time, I feel that I knew less before than what I thought I did.

    Please keep on writing.

    Best

    • Bruck,

      I am so humbled by your contribution here. Thank you for reminding me to place my experience in a wider context.

      I love the detail that you would purchase Penguin’s Publishers collections. Where I live, books are hardly available in Amharic or Afan Oromo, let alone English. Reading has been such a vehicle of learning and understanding for me. I wish that my students and friends could have the same opportunity.

      Sometimes I do feel like the diaspora Ethiopians I meet are disconnected to life in the countryside. Addis Ababa/Hawassa/Mekele/Bahar Dar are vastly different compared to the mid-sized town where I live. To think, most of the woreda people who travel to the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays to sell gomen or firewood, consider Adaba to be “the big city,” too. While I understand justifying the progress of development in Ethiopia, I don’t think it’s always fair that the big international voices reference Addis Ababa. Does that make sense?

      Oh my goodness. Hardly knowing the country–I feel that way about the US and most certainly this sweet place. I hope to continue learning and understanding Ethiopia through conversations with people like you when I return to my “home.”

      Thank you very, very much.

      Amanda

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