Maaza Mengiste offers her reader little shade from the glaring sun in her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. After the successful removal of Emperor Haile Selassie from power in the early 1970s, the students pour their hopes into communism. Yet communism under the militaristic Derg is more treacherous than the acid poured down by the imperialist Italians a generation before. While neglected lions whimper from their palace cages, the people of Ethiopia cry out at the injustice of their world. Mengiste wraps the reader in the knitted family of Doctor Hailu, only to pull from every corner, nearly suffocating the reader as the family struggles to keep from tearing itself apart.
When Doctor Hailu finds himself in charge of healing a young woman wearing a floral shirt, fashionable jeans, and a plastic bag to contain the mess of her innumerable wounds, he comes to a new understanding of death. For his terminally ill wife, “death came in moonlight,” but for this appallingly tortured woman, death “is in the crash and tear of depravity and brutality.” Deciding that such a death should only torment a person once, Hailu slips cyanide between his patient’s lips, holds her hand, and watches as she escapes from “the stink and mire of horror and noise.”
But the battered young woman was a very special prisoner, and her quiet death did not go unnoticed by the Derg. Not until he has himself suffered the broken teeth, the waste-filled room, and the drone of electrocuted eardrums at the fists of the Derg can Hailu understand just what a monster he has helped her to escape. As death prowls the streets of Addis Ababa, mothers wail to a god who no longer hears their entreaties over the roar of gunfire. Mengiste presents a world where death rarely comes when bidden and, instead, consumes those who should have been saved for later. Grace is reserved for the dead.
In a time when revolutions rattle and reinvigorate much of our world, Mengiste’s novel makes a frighteningly real case of the risk inherent in ditching one idol for another. Crowds of good intentions fall to the unhesitating command of a new dictator. Despite Mengiste’s flowing focus between the many minds of her characters, she never enters the thoughts of a mind controlled by the Derg. Her brief representations of a person nearly overcome and a soul recently escaped from its clutches intimates that her neglect of this powerful perspective was far from accidental. Mengiste does not illuminate the terrorizing darkness of her villain’s thoughts, but instead seems to question whether such thoughts would be too inhuman to comprehend, even under the clarifying light of her prose.
As rebellion simmers in the first section of her novel, Mengiste lingers with death as it strolls in and waits to kiss goodbye at the door. She holds a healed child close to her pounding heart. Then Mengiste draws you inexorably on, through the noise and the crowds. She shocks you with words stretched into the grotesque images that litter Ethiopia’s battered streets. You rush and stumble through the novel, staring helplessly at hopes crushed by the stony eye that focuses behind a trigger. The buzz of bullets rockets through your troubled mind.
You prepare to sigh from relief upon reaching the final period, but Al Jazeera murmurs in the background, and the emptiness of the page fills up with news.