Maaza Mengiste
Maaza Mengiste; illustration by Johnalynn Holland

In a black-and-white photo taken in December 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia stands at ease in a smart khaki military uniform and pith helmet, with a cape draped over his shoulders. Pensive men brandishing rifles remain a respectful distance behind him in dry, rough terrain. Selassie looks as if he could be posing at the end of a hunt. But he has one foot perched nonchalantly on an unexploded bomb, not a lion or leopard.

Hours earlier, Italian warplanes had bombed Dessie, his new headquarters 250 miles north of the capital, Addis Ababa. Once the air raid was over, leaving more than a dozen dead and many wounded, Selassie ordered his men to bring a cache of ordnance that had failed to explode to the grounds of the abandoned Italian consulate. Photographers were invited to record the emperor’s dignified defiance of the military might of a modern European power.

In 1896 Ethiopian forces had repulsed Italian invaders at the Battle of Adwa. Forty years later, the Italians were more difficult to resist; the photo was only a bluff. Selassie and his compatriots would soon be under the heel of Benito Mussolini, whose rapacity and imperial ambitions had led to the invasion of Ethiopia two months earlier. The brutality of the Fascists would be further demonstrated by their use of mustard gas not only on Ethiopian troops but on the civilian population.

Many nations expressed outrage but did little to thwart Mussolini’s assault; more vocal support came from the African diaspora. Since Selassie’s coronation as emperor in 1930, the Conquering Lion of Judah had become, especially for those in the diaspora, the most revered black man in the world. Presiding over one of the two African sovereign nations not yet colonized by European powers (the other being Liberia), Selassie was considered the embodiment and fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that “princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” For black people, the Italo-Ethiopian conflict was unequivocally a race war. “The real facts reveal Mussolini as a barbarian, compared to Haile Selassie,” wrote the pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey as he lamented the grave threat posed to the “ancient sceptre wielded for ages by an historic line of black sovereigns.”

Italy had already shown, in governing its colony in neighboring Eritrea, a ruthlessness toward Africans that was endorsed even by the writer Ferdinando Martini, who, notwithstanding his later signing of the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals in 1925, was considered a Tuscan liberal. In 1891, six years before his appointment as governor of Eritrea, Martini was part of a royal commission charged with overseeing an inquest into the excessive use of whipping and other abuses in the colony. Martini concluded:

One race must replace the other; it’s that or nothing…whether we like it or not, we will have to hunt [the native] down and encourage him to disappear, just as had been done with the Redskins, using all the methods civilization—which the native instinctively hates—can provide: gunfire and a daily dose of firewater.

Eritrea provided a base for the invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. The Italians’ early military successes soon made Ethiopians realize that they were in a fight to preserve their country. Selassie issued a desperate conscription proclamation:

The hour is grave. Each of you must rise up, take up his arms and speed to the appeal of the country for defense. Women, gather round your chiefs, obey them with a single heart and thrust back the invader…. Those who cannot for weakness or infirmity take an active part in this holy struggle must aid us with their prayers…. Out into the field. For the Emperor. For the Fatherland.

The Italo-Ethiopian War has often been overlooked, treated as a sideshow to the calamitous world war that was to come. The participation of women in it has been further eclipsed, and this is the focus of the Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste’s second novel, The Shadow King.

The novel opens decades later in 1974. Addis Ababa is gripped by revolutionary fervor, with public demonstrations and students chanting for the abdication of Haile Selassie. The main character, Hirut, is a veteran of the war with a complicated past. Beneath her neatly braided hair, she hides a long scar that “puckers at the base of her neck and trails over her shoulder like a broken necklace.” It is emblematic of the violence at the center of The Shadow King.

Hirut has returned to Addis Ababa almost forty years after the war, reluctantly answering a plea for a meeting with Ettore Navarra, a remorseful Italian photographer who lives and works in a studio in the capital. The story of their lives—grievously and inextricably bound together—is told in flashback to 1935–1941. Ettore had been a soldier during the Italo-Ethiopian War and was complicit in making a photographic record of Hirut’s humiliation as a prisoner of war, and of the torture and killing of myriad captive Ethiopians.


One of Mengiste’s strengths is her determination to capture not just the Ethiopian patriots’ mindset but also the invaders’ point of view, especially that of Ettore, a flawed and conflicted character whose Jewish identity placed him in a vulnerable position after the introduction of racial laws at home and abroad. His parents in Italy will eventually be rounded up during his tour of duty. Ettore may be weak and passive, but even so he ought to be more scandalized by Italy’s racially inflected violence in Ethiopia, the delusional glory of its African adventure, and the tragic romance of a resurrected Roman Empire. Hirut is certain that Ettore deserves death for his part in the atrocities that resulted from that delusion, yet she holds out the possibility that he may deserve compassion too.

The Shadow King unfolds over a series of short, crisp chapters, with writing that is by turns as succinct and precise as a military dispatch and as lyrical as a poem. Her tale also finds parallels in the biblical story of David and Goliath. In 1935 Italian regiments allied with their ascari (mostly Eritrean colonial troops) could count on the overwhelming advantage of hundreds of tanks, heavy artillery, and planes; the Ethiopians were reliant on just a handful of planes and tanks, along with old rifles and spears. In the novel’s first major battle, the Italian commander, Carlo Fucelli, is bemused by the sight of Ethiopian soldiers armed with spears and swords and “scaling his tanks as if they were simply iron mountains.” But more disturbing on the smoky battlefield is the “bloom of white dresses, skirts rippling in the wind. They are tumbling down the hill as if gravity were of no consequence….They are not women, he decides, but illusions.”

Women weren’t meant to be on the battlefield. But Mengiste’s fiction is grounded in the oral histories of warriors such as Woizero Alemitu Mekong:

Female Patriots like me bandaged wounds and provided water and bullets by carrying them on our backs with a leather thong especially prepared for carrying, called an ircot. We would also inspire and encourage the males calling, “Where are you retreating to? Where are you going? Are you going back to your mother’s womb?” In addition, we would throw grenades from a distance by snatching their fuses with our teeth, as the men had taught us.*

What is the place of women in war? If war makes a man out of a soldier, what does it do to female combatants? Like the soldiers in The Unwomanly Face of War, by the Belarusian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, Hirut, in her youth, is not content with playing a subservient or supportive part in the war. She has an old, out-of-date Wujigra, “a bolt-action, 11mm rifle designed to deliver a single lethal shot,” left to her by her late father, who made her pledge never to surrender it; she is a practiced sharpshooter and wants to turn it on the enemy.

With her heroine, Mengiste is determined to challenge readers’ expectations about the gender of the soldier/warrior just as Alexievich did. There were female soldiers in centuries past, Alexievich contends, but their contributions were rarely recognized, not even by themselves—at least publicly. She writes of the Soviet female soldiers, “Even those who were at the front say nothing. If they suddenly begin to remember, they don’t talk about the ‘women’s’ war but about the ‘men’s.’” Mengiste has written of her intention to illuminate lives that “have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents.”

Even before the arrival of the Italians, Hirut’s life has been made miserable by the daily humiliations she endures as a servant in the household of her guardians, Kidane and Aster. Under Ethiopia’s feudal society, Hirut, who is “unbroken by servitude and orders,” lives nonetheless at the mercy of her master and mistress’s caprice. Aster is threatened by Hirut’s beauty, particularly by her husband’s thinly veiled infatuation with the servant. Early on, in one of the many brutal moments in the book that will cause readers to wince, Aster grabs a whip and unleashes her fury on Hirut.

If there’s one note that characterizes The Shadow King, it is indignation; the novel burns with shame and dishonor. Yet Hirut harbors no dark ideas of revenge. At some level she recognizes that Aster is equally damaged by the pathological chauvinism and constraints of Ethiopian society. When, soon after the assault with the whip, her mistress—dressed in jodhpurs, chemise, and an old, prized leather cloak of Kidane’s father (to the irritation of her husband)—answers the call to war and attempts to rouse other women to do the same, Hirut sees her intention: to invest in a recognized uniform of authority, to mimic men.


But a uniform, even a military one, offers no guarantee of protection. Inevitably, Hirut will not escape her master’s lust. Even when she follows her guardians into war, there is no respite from the offenses she must endure, including being raped by Kidane, now her military commander. Hirut is at war on two fronts—against the Italian occupying army and a society in which men such as Kidane can transgress with impunity, notwithstanding his regret, which leaves him feeling “the ache of a heart making room for new guilt.”

At the back of The Shadow King, Mengiste includes a fading picture of an Ethiopian teenager who bears a likeness to the imagined Hirut. The novelist is something of an archivist of old photos, postcards, memos, and other artifacts from the period she is writing about; when she began the novel, she was inspired by the portraits of a handful of women. Long descriptions of photos are a recurring trope in the book. Mengiste first conjures the image (shadows, highlights, tone, setting) and then builds an impression of the character in that photo, depicting what will be lost when the subject ages:

There is Yasin, without the scar he will get near his eye. There is Eskinder, still with supple, unburnt skin. Next to them is Seifu and his son, Tariku. Seifu is turned away slightly, still defiant without a hint of the sorrow that will come.

Mengiste proves a careful navigator of the horrors of the past, bringing the reader close to the limits of what can be borne. It’s uncanny because at times the novel can feel as if a photographer’s filter has been placed in front of it. As Italian soldiers prepare to shove two elderly Ethiopian priests off a cliff, she writes:

They are lined up side by side, legs bound together, between the tall boulders…the vulture pads down the field then launches off the edge to wait below…. [Ettore] obeys Fucelli’s orders and staggers towards those old priests and photographs their final flight.

There’s a certain distancing that mirrors the protective veil that Ettore gains from being behind the lens when he is forced to place his expertise in the service of Fucelli. The commander, whose cruelty in Libya earned him the title the “butcher of Benghazi” (he is a proxy for Marshal Graziani, the brutal commander of the southern front of Italy’s occupying force), is the most singularly vile character in the book, an unremitting villain whose death cannot come soon enough.

Ettore accepts that he has become “an archivist of obscenities” and a “collector of terror,” tasked with compiling an album of the dead. But his gruesome documentation is also an act of filial devotion. In letters, his father has instructed Ettore to bear witness to his compatriots’ barbarism: “Do not let these people forget what they have become. Do not let them turn away from their own reflections.”

Mengiste’s first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, centered on the fallout from the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. Like that book, The Shadow King has its roots in family history. Her fictional heroine Hirut has similarities with Mengiste’s great-grandmother Getey, whose story also involved a treasured rifle. In 1935 Getey sued her father over her right to enlist in the army. Selassie had ordered each family to send their eldest son to join the army. But as Getey’s father had no son, he gave the weapon to her husband, his son-in-law, to act as the family’s representative. Getey, as the eldest child, considered it hers; she won the case and went to war armed with the rifle. It’s a remarkable coincidence, for, as Mengiste has written, “I had no idea when I sent my fictional Hirut to war that my great-grandmother, Getey, preceded her: flesh and bone, blood and pride, paving the path for my imagination.” The novel is suffused with personal histories (real lives and their fictional approximations) woven into an intoxicating tale of grievance and glory, a meeting of the private and political writ large particularly in the emperor.

Mengiste portrays Haile Selassie tenderly; he’s a forlorn figure grieving his daughter Zenebwork, dead for a year, ostensibly from the complications of childbirth. He resists turning his head lest out of the corner of his eye he catch sight of her in her wedding dress. His Majesty is renowned for his strategic thinking and his ability to compartmentalize information, but he can gain no purchase on Mussolini. His son-in-law Gugsa has betrayed him to the Italians, and Selassie struggles to “train himself to withstand disorientation and stay calm until the world melds itself back together.”

In a darkened room, deferential, whispering aides bring him out-of-date newsreels of the Italian advance. The emperor is largely silent and aloof, paralyzed with indecision, fiddling with the needle of his gramophone as the Italian forces encroach, obsessively playing Verdi’s Aida, which he thinks surely holds the key to understanding the accelerating tragedy. Mengiste’s description of the emperor’s febrile mental state as he prepares to flee his kingdom is among the most poignant passages of the book: “It is there, in a place no human hand can reach that he feels himself fading away, rubbed out in increments by his enemies. It is a disappearance that begins like this: with forgetfulness and boxes.”

Sometimes historical novelists suffer from a nervous tendency to flag their research, leading to a separation, especially in tone, between the factual and fictional. But everything in The Shadow King, whether invented or not, seems plausible. Mengiste’s boldest conceit explains the title of her novel. When Selassie escapes to Europe, his troops are demoralized. Something must be done to strengthen their resolve. Kidane discovers a peasant who could be a doppelgänger of the emperor. Once kitted out in royal clothing and given training in manners and bearing, the peasant can be passed off as Selassie and the rumor spread of the emperor’s return. The peasant will be guarded by Hirut, and in the absence of the real Selassie, he will serve as a shadow king.

When Hirut and Aster are later captured by the Italians, they are spared execution but stripped, degraded, and forced to pose for photographs, which will be made into postcards to be distributed as propaganda throughout the land. Ettore, in his obedience to the command to photograph them, can only hope “to feel [Hirut’s] disdain and let it roll over him while hoping to feel its ebb and the gradual push of something else kinder, gentler, and forgiving.”

Forgiveness may not be possible, but the novel slowly and effectively explores how Hirut tamps down her emotions; to forgive her own cowardice in battle, blocking out the memory of a comrade’s scream for help, “she will force herself…to go back and erase that moment when someone named Hirut got up and left a dying boy named Beniam, and ran.” Increasingly Hirut takes possession of her own way of seeing and interpreting the world around her. Whether her molestation and abuse are at the hands of the prison guards or her own Ethiopian commander, she learns to be in her body but out of it, too. Toward the novel’s end, finding herself on the battlefield with her Wujigra rifle, Hirut does not just have the enemy in mind when she contemplates squeezing the trigger:

She has done this many times before in her dreams: She has swung her rifle from her back and aimed and shot at Kidane. She has buried a single bullet into his chest then bent down to make sure he was dead. She has killed him many times, day after day, night after night, while walking and sleeping and eating and caring for the wounded. She has trained herself to brace for the blunt force of discharge. She has carved a single line into the barrel for a new enemy down.

In 1936 Italian regiments entered Addis Ababa; in 1941 they were defeated. The final battles in which the tide turns toward Ethiopian victories are righteous and exhilarating. Five years after Selassie fled Ethiopia, he returns from exile to lead his troops, like the Spanish legend of the resurrected El Cid (whose corpse was encased in body armor strapped to his horse), terrifying the enemy into submission:

Haile Selassie sweeps into view on a sunlit horse, the jewels braided into the animal’s mane flashing like a thousand eyes…a spirit solidified into human form…a chorus of women’s voices whipping at his back like a thick, royal cape.

This historical novel characterizes the past not as a faithful reproduction, a fact subjected to a photographic fixative, but rather as a negative that develops over the book’s course so that some lasting and vivid truths emerge, perhaps only hinted at in the beginning but unassailable by the end.

Though divided into three acts (Invasion, Resistance, Returns) and framed by a flashback from one period of crisis (the 1974 Ethiopian revolution) to another (the 1935–1941 Italian occupation), the book is seeded with a series of unconventional breaks in structure: in the sections called “Chorus” an otherworldly chorus of gossiping Ethiopian women make vatic pronouncements about the unfolding tragedy, in particular as it relates to Hirut and Aster, that are by turns wise, sympathetic, and unsparingly critical; there are also brief, punctuating passages identified by the title “Photo” in which startling images, especially of executions, are presented with the temporary but unsettling force of a blinding flash; and “Interlude” marks the moments when the shadowy figure of Selassie, whose storyline is mostly distinct from the main narrative, drifts in and out of the book. Toward the end, the novel turns from the gritty realism of the ravages of war to the magical and mystical when characters from Aida who have haunted Selassie step out, as it were, from the long-playing record to show him a way to escape the psychological trauma and physical dangers posed to his rule by the 1974 revolts on the streets of Addis Ababa.

Told in a more conventional and familiar way, The Shadow King could have been a catalog of gore, of unremitting depravity. But Mengiste takes a more humane route. When Kidane, the tormentor, master, and rapist of Hirut but also her inspirational commander, lies mortally wounded in the final, decisive battle against the Italians, her attempts to comfort him are all the more poignant for her ambivalence:

They are two figures floating in a dark river, one holding the other on her lap, bending to cradle him and whisper into his ear…. Then she lifts her face to the sky as Kidane tries to reach for her face to draw her near or push her away, Hirut stares down at the dying man, her eyes narrowing. I am a soldier, she says. I am Getey’s daughter. They will forget you and remember me. She clears her throat, wipes her cheeks, and says it again as Kidane groans and breathes his last….They will forget you and remember me.

Hirut knows, of course, that the opposite will be true: she will be forgotten. In this regard, her emotional intelligence is matched by Mengiste. Even as she bears witness to the ravaging and destruction of bodies, Mengiste remains respectful and protective of her subjects’ integrity. There will be life beyond the horror. When Hirut eventually retrieves the pornographic, propagandistic photos taken of her, she recognizes that they are twin images:

One begging for assistance while the other pleads silently for forgiveness. One alone within the folds of barbed wire, and the other catapulted into history, doomed to roam through borders and homes, never more than the object imprisoned by the eye.