Maaza Mengiste’s first novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is both wonderfully readable and painfully informative. The novel tells the story of the Ethiopian Revolution of the 1970s by combining the facts of the Revolution (with some creative license taken, of course) with one family’s personal experience. Mengiste weaves together the viewpoints of various characters in order to create a lasting image of what life was like for the victims of this terrible tragedy in world history.
The action of the novel begins in 1975, when a military-orchestrated coup d’etat deposed Emperor Haile Selassie, allegedly murdering him in his own bed. To emphasize the country’s mixed reaction to its iconic last emperor’s deposition, Mengiste artfully integrates several passages narrated by the emperor himself. The novel subsequently delves into the terror inflicted upon the country by the Derg, the socialist military regime that ruled Ethiopia until the early 1990s.
At the center of the plot is Hailu, a prominent doctor who is jailed by the regime after he assists a brutally tortured patient in suicide in order to spare her what is sure to be a slow and painful death should she be released to her captors. Hailu’s sons Yonas and Dawit, in addition to the trouble surrounding their father’s imprisonment, struggle with their own personal and political dilemmas. Yonas, father of seven-year-old Tizita and husband to Sara, who is still in mourning after the deaths of her parents and infant children, is a man who wishes to play by the rules and enjoy his family life in peace. However, Dawit, Yonas’s politically minded younger brother, is unable to remove himself from his country’s struggle and involves himself deeply with the counterrevolutionary movement. These characters, in conjunction with their relationships with others, represent a variety of perspectives, offering the reader a vivid image of the Ethiopian Revolution.
One of the novel’s strongest themes is its emphasis on an individual’s ability to act. The idea of agency is constantly referred to, literally when Hailu and Selam, Hailu’s wife, repeat their own names in order to convince themselves of their ability to act. However, it is in the character of Dawit that the importance of agency is most effectively detailed. When Dawit is faced with injustice, whether against himself or others, he experiences a strong need to correct it and is not content to compartmentalize. This need to act is juxtaposed most strongly against Yonas’s penchant for retreating; however, it also meets opposition in Mickey, Dawit’s best friend-turned-enemy. As the novel progresses, the flaccid, nearsighted Mickey evolves from Dawit’s diffident childhood companion to his sworn enemy as he chooses an upward career in the military, the most viable instrument of Derg-sanctioned terror, over resistance. This decision proves ultimately insurmountable as Dawit is forced to reckon with Mickey at the novel’s close.
One final point of note on this great debut novel is its style. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is comprised of various narrators and voices, each beautifully executed and distinct from the next. However, there are times when the novel feels a bit disjointed. For me, though, this is a result of the short length of each chapter/passage and not the presence of multiple narrators.
Overall, Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is an outstanding novel. The story is an important one and leaves me with a desire not only to learn more about the subject, but more from the author herself. This book contains a powerful message the reader will not soon forget.