About a third of the way through her multi-layered masterpiece, The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste takes us inside the head of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. It is 1935. His country has been invaded by Italy as Mussolini pursues his policy of expansionism. He should be inspecting troops in advance of the following day’s offensive. Instead, he is playing Verdi’s Aida – the story of a treacherous Ethiopian princess who abandons her country for love – to fire him up. Yet his obsession with Aida is also linked to his own daughter, Zenebwork, married off to a cruel husband to bind two families. Selassie ignored her pleas to come home and she died, possibly at her husband’s hands. Zenebwork’s ghost stalks Selassie in his darkest hours, reminding him of his own betrayal.
Mengiste takes a story of 20th-century war and elevates it to the level of opera or Greek myth. Her Ethiopia is a land noisy with spectral voices. The dead exert an irresistible power over the living. Lowly servant Hirut’s fate is driven by her determination to recover her stolen wujigra, the gun her father used in the first Italo-Ethiopian War 40 years earlier; her employer Kidane and his wife Aster’s by the loss of their young son.
Not all the ghosts are dead. Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer serving with brutal Italian warrior Colonel Fucelli is tormented by a letter from his father, Leo, revealing secrets from his past. As Mussolini cracks down on Jews, Leo warns him never to come home.
Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, banishment, violence and oppression are woven together by Mengiste’s “chorus” which keens the protagonists’ distress. “O blessed daughter, you who spin in slow circles,” Voice III laments before Hirut is raped by Kidane.
The Shadow King takes its title from what happens when Ethiopia is on the brink of defeat and Selassie flees, leading once-loyal villagers to give up. Then Hirut notices one of their cohort, Minim, is the double of their erstwhile leader. They dress him up as Selassie with Hirut as royal guard. Word spreads that Selassie has not deserted and the villagers recover their morale. Hirut is a chattel; Minim, a cipher whose name means “nothing”, and the book is a lyrical paean to the liberating power of transformation.
Mengiste is also interested in the potency of photography. Alongside the short chorus chapters are descriptions of individual pictures taken by Ettore, her characters caught in a moment, their expressions and stance revealing some inner trait: hostility, defiance or inscrutability. But even within the main text, her descriptions have a cinematic quality. Whether it is prisoners hurled off a cliff and into the sun “like Icarus”, or Minim as the emperor on a horse “the jewels braided into the animal’s mane, flashing like a thousand eyes,” Mengiste creates indelible images and makes everything she touches extraordinary.