The Shadow King is a historical fiction novel by Maaza Mengiste. When I describe it to friends, I say that the beautiful writing sits in stark contrast to the atrocities in the story. I don’t generally read books for the writing, but it was the writing as well as the story that captivated me in this case.
The story starts in 1974 in Addis Ababa. Hirut waits at the train station for Etorre to return a box to him. She is 2 days early. That’s all we know, until we travel back in time, to the mid 1930s to find out why she has the box, her connection to Etorre, and the wide gulf in time. We also know she has a significant scar, from her neck to her back, which she tries to hide with her scarf.
This story is full of spoilers. If you want a review without spoilers, see this post instead.
As a young girl, Hirut goes to work in the house of Aster and Kidane. She shares a room with the cook, a woman who never gets any other identity in The Shadow King. They are somehow bound to this couple; they belong to them. The cook worked for Aster’s family before becoming Aster’s servant. Aster holds secrets of both women, of the cook’s attempt to help her run away and avoid being married off to Kidane, and of how Kidane’s father used to use Getey, Hirut’s mother. Aster was the one who rescued Getey from Kidane’s father and helped her run away with the man who would become Hirut’s father.
When Asther and the cook were found by Aster’s father, the cook was beaten until she passed out. Aster watched on and didn’t help, curious about the limits of human suffering. She saw what courage looked like, without begging. She would try to learn for her own challenge, marriage. Only when she had learned this lesson did she plead with her father for forgiveness and stopped the abuse.
The servants learn about the coming invasion of the Italians. The cook is hopeful that the Italians will free her. When Aster enters their room to search for her missing necklace, she finds a flyer from the Italians that the cook was keeping. She also finds Aster’s father’s gun, a Wujigra. However, all guns were supposed to have been given up to the government in preparation for the war. Kidane takes the gun away. Hirut is silently furious.
Hirut cleans and cleans, trying to find her gun, even in places it could never fit. Then she starts to steal items, including the necklace Aster originally accused her of stealing. She found it stuffed in Kidane’s desk, forgotten there. She buried the items beside the stable, under a pile of logs. Because her eyes kept straying there, Aster realized something was there, and had Hirut dig up the pile.
Aster was grieving, heartbroken from the death of her son. She was also jealous of the way her husband looked at and treated Hirut. Her punishment of Hirut was to whip her, leaving the scar. However, she did not fire Hirut; No one helped Hirut but once she woke up after passing out from her injury, she got back to work.
The Italian-Ethiopian War
Kidane recruited men and collected weapons for the army. The women’s job was to feed and care for the men. However, after the incident with Hirut, Aster put on Kidane’s clothes, got on her house and travelled for days to recruit women and to collect weapons to assist. Despite fights with Kidane about this, she carried on, becoming a person of legend.
Kidane awaits instructions from Haile Selassie. This is an interesting storyline. Haile Selassie comes across as ineffective, a coward. He stays in his office listening to Aida again and again. He consults with his advisors, but we see him making few decisions, until he eventually leaves with his family and entourage for his house in England, deserting his citizens and the war. I’ve been to the opera once, but I knew nothing about the story of Aida. I’ve since learned that it is a story of love and betrayal
The Shadow King is possibly written to resemble an opera as well, with the use of chorus, interludes and musical elements woven throughout. It ties into the musical history of the Ethiopian culture, the use of music in remembering and spreading legends.
Fighting in Battle
Hirut is almost sold in exchange for guns to an Italian man, but the cook volunteers instead, encouraging the man to take her due to her ability to give him something that is more powerful than the khat he loves to chew.
When Kidane’s army goes to war, the women make up the rare, responsible for the cooking, preparing medicine and taking care of the injured. In the first battle, a young man, Dawit is injured. He had Hirut’s gun, and it did not work when he tried to fire it. The other soldiers, including his brother, got him to safety. However, they had no medicines to help him.
Kidane instructed Hirut to stay with Dawit, but she found the smell too difficult to be around. However, when she did enter the cave where he was sheltering, she saw her father’s gun. On her way out, she got it. Kidane, feeling guilty about Dawit’s injury, found Hirut’s disobedience of him to be a perfect excuse to unleash his guilt on her. He sexually assaulted her. All the women were gossiping about her the next day until Aster stopped their procession and dealt with the rumors head on, blaming Hirut for Kidane’s behavior. Hirut vowed to kill Kidane; Aster countered that she would kill Hirut if that was the case.
Kidane tried to sexually assault Hirut on another occasion. She learned that indifference, for example yawning while he was raping her, caused him to lose his desire.
In the next battle, the women joined the fight. Hirut found that the skills she had practiced did not come naturally to her in battle. It was not easy to kill another person. She also had to walk over dead people and leave the injured behind. One of them, Beniam, haunts her.
Colonel Carlo Fucelli
The Italian army that Kidane’s army faces is led by Colonel Fucelli His army is made by a group of Italian men and men from Ethiopia, the ascari.
Fucelli is a sadistic man, good at leading men in a war. He sets up his base on a hill and builds a prison. It appears that the prison only has 2 cells, but the location is chosen so that the prisoners can be thrown over the edge of a cliff. Fucelli wants to see how people can break. He likes to capture it all. This is Etorre’s role, to capture photos of the prisoners on their “final ascent”. Everything is staged, from the location set up with 2 boulders to form a gate and events being scheduled for the best light.
After one man from Kidane’s army is hanged by Fucelli on a scouting mission, his father and some other men from Kidane’s army manage to break into the camp and attack Fucelli. He loses control of his bowels when they cut him. However, they do not kill him. In some ways, Fucelli was broken, but that only made him more wicked.
Fifi and the cook
Fifi is a renowned prostitute for Italian armies. She was at Fucelli’s camp when the attack happened, and helped clean him up, hiding his indignity from his men. However, Fifi’s real reason for being at the camp was as a spy. She used her knowledge of what was happening at the camp to send information to Kidane.
The Shadow King
Hirut noticed that Minim (a name that means nothing) looked like Haile Selassie. After Selassie left the country, the people felt deserted and lost hope. Aster and Hirut had the idea to use Minim to encourage the soldiers and other Ethiopians to continue to fight. They trained Minim to behave as the emperor and were his personal guards. They rode with him into battle.
In the battle, Aster and Hirut were captured. They were kept locked up in a cell and forced to pose for photos that Etorre took. Those photos were printed and shared amongst the soldiers and with others, as were photos of other prisoners who were killed. Fucelli wanted to find out where the camp was from the women.
They were not sexually assaulted. I’m not sure how realistic this is. There was an edict from Italy that made it illegal for Italian men to be with Native women. However, Fuccelli gave the men permission to go to town to find prostitutes at a local bar.
Hirut kept her hope alive. She expected Akilu (the soldier she loved) and Kidane to rescue her and Aster. Once they got the message from Fifu that it was time, they did. Hirut had vowed
Etorre is the only Italian soldier that can speak to the prisoners. He feels drawn to Hirut and tries to talk to her. They have a moment of connection over thoughts of death, of their parents.
Etorre begins to fear for his safety. Italy requires all Jews to be identified; they are not allowed to be soldiers. Etorre gets a letter from his father and learns that his father was from Ukraine. He realizes that he is a Jew. When the census comes, Fucelli tries to protect him, but then a letter comes from Rome that Etorre needs to be sent to face action for his discipline.
He keeps his father’s letter with him at all times, reading it multiple times. Fucelli gets the letter (through his most trusted ascari soldier, Ibrahim) to learn what is consuming Etorre. Once Etorre learns about his return to Rome, he buries his box of memories, letters he’s written to his dad that will not make it past the filters, photos that he’s taken documenting the war and photos from other photographers. He asks Hirut to watch the box for him, to get it and keep it once it’s safe to do so.
The Women’s Rescue
When Kidane gets the message from Fifi that it is time, his army attacks the camp to rescue the women. Hirut knocks out Etorre and steals his letter, but she doesn’t kill him.
When Fucelli finds out that Ibrahim was the one to find and help Etorre, he wonders why Ibrahim didn’t fight the attackers. He decides to whip Ibrahim, and commands Etorre to do so, to curry favor with Rome. This is a fatal mistake.
The final battle
When the women and Kidane attack again, the ascari leave the camp to the mountains. They were crucial in the Italian army’s success, and with them gone, Kidane’s army was able to overrun and kill Fucelli and the other soldiers. Hirut tells Etorre to run away. He takes her advice and that of his father to run and remain in Ethiopia.
The Ending of The Shadow King
Etorre ends up working as a photographer around Ethiopia. In the final chapters, we see him taking photos of former soldiers in his studio in Addis Ababa. There are protests once more to overthrow Haile Selassie and to get the foreigners out. Etorre thinks, “I photographed the dead and the dying. I helped kill the innocent. I left my parents to their fate. What right do I have to remain?”
This is what is on Etorre’s mind when Hailu, the brother of Dawit, is now a renowned surgeon. He visits to tell Etorre that it is time for Italians to leave Ethiopia. It is through him that Etorre manages to get a message to Hirut. His search for her had been futile up to that point.
In the end, Minim is back in his village attending church, adjusting once more to being nothing. He thinks of his aloneness, and he hears a message, “Every sun creates a shadow and not all are blessed to stand in the light.” He will gradually return to himself, a rebirth.
Haile Selassie is once again listening to Aida, feeling the betrayal in the story. Outside, protesters are calling him a liar, gunshots of the revolution against him. He has a conversation with the dead, with Aida and Amonasro, and his daughter Zenebwork. “He flattens his palms on top of his head and repeats: We have placed everything here as well. We will hold this country together in this way.” The characters from Aida ask him about memory and teach him about remembrance: “When the dead are lost, those who carry their memory will find you, Teferi.” They advise him, “You must become of yourself and bear witness to your own demise, like me.”
He decides to don his peasant clothes, the same ones he used to escape to Britain during the war, and walks to the railway station. He carries his dead daughter with him.
The Three Points
While waiting for Etorre, Hirut decides to keep the letter from his father. She thinks “that Etorre has no right to it because of all that they have lost since he invaded her country, because of all she has lost, because she is a thief, and she has had to take in order to correct an unnatural balance.” It’s her attempt to “fit into the world” as Aster told her was her destiny.
When Etorre arrives, he is anxious to meet Hirut, to get his items back. For an instance, he thinks he spots hatred in her face as she salutes him as an Ethiopian soldier. “Etorre walks towards her as if the path to forgiveness lay between them, as if years erase scars and photographs and history, as if that hand stretching out to grasp Hirut’s can raise the dead and return all he has stolen.” He has brought a photograph to give her, one that he took of her and Aster when they were unaware, a stolen moment when he thought “you and I … are not so different after all”. However, Hirut won’t come out of her salute, and steps back as he approaches.
Hirut then spots the emperor. He seems lost. When she addresses him, he thinks that she is a ghost saying, “Give us your name so we can bring you forth”. She tells him her name, her history, and that she is married to Akilu with 2 daughters.
Finally, Hirut gives the box to Etorre “shoving the box toward him with her foot”. She tells him, “You’re not welcome in this place”. Then she gives the letter to Etorre, releasing her lifelong rage, as she speaks the names of the dead.
Hirut takes the emperor’s hand and offers to guide him. He takes the hand of his ghost of a daughter on the other side. She is a soldier once more as she “lets memory lie across her shoulders like a cape while she salutes the Shadow Kings, every single one, and raises her Wujigra, a brave and fearsome soldier once more.”
We learn that that photo of the stolen moment was when Hirut found out from Aster that they would be rescued that night; the cook had told her. Hirut’s response was, “let me kill the photographer myself.”
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