Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2021

The Shadow King (2019), by Maaza Mengiste

I’m very much indebted to Perth-based Sisonke Msimang (director of the Perth festival) for the way her interview with Maaza Mengiste enhanced my reading of The Shadow King.  It is a gripping historical novel which reveals a little-known aspect of colonial history in Africa, but it is more than that.  It is a book which interrogates the way history is written and perceived.

As Mengiste explained in the interview, having decided on her topic (the Ethiopian war against Mussolini’s Italy in 1935) and refined it when her research led her to the discovery that Ethiopian women fought in that war too—and then discovered very late in the day that her own grandmother was one of those women—she then had to grapple with the archive, that is, what the written record tells us compared to what actually happened.  

She uses a number of techniques to sheet this message home.  We all know that history is written by the victors, but it’s common to have unjustified faith in photographs as documentary evidence, rendering them ‘irrefutable’ facts.  But in the novel, the character of Ettore Navarro is a photojournalist under the sadistic command of Colonel Fucelli.  Dependent on Fucelli’s goodwill to save him from recall to Italy to face persecution as a Jew, Navarro is forced to record Fucelli’s war crimes as well his triumphs in establishing Italian rule.  In the prologue, set in 1974, Hirut, the central character in the novel, has possession of a box of these photos to return to Navarro… and interspersed through the narrative, signalled by the heading ‘Photo’, there are descriptions of their content.  But that content is then undermined by a description also of the circumstances in which they were taken.

On the back is a photographer’s stamp that has faded over the years.  There were several photographers roaming their area, shooting pictures and trading them with one another.  Ettore has written: Una schiava abissina, an Abyssinian slave, but this is not one of his.  He has never been near the cook and Aklili and Tariku and Seifu at the same time.  He has never been allowed the privilege of standing in front of those great fighters in complete and unquestioned safety.  He would not have taken that photo and walked away alive. (p.93)

A chorus also disrupts the narrative from time to time.  Again in the interview Mengiste explained that although many readers have recognised this as a device from the drama of Ancient Greece, the chorus, in fact, is also a common feature in storytelling throughout Africa.  (There is, for example, a chorus of voices in Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose; there is a chorus in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes. If I remember correctly, there is a chorus of Igbo spirits in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, and Igbo spirits narrate aspects of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi.)  The first time the chorus intervenes to undermine the narrative in The Shadow King is startling: Aster, Hirut’s cruel mistress who beats her savagely and locks her up in the dark without food or water, is then abruptly revealed as the very reluctant bride of Kidane.  Her bitterness derives from marital rape on her bridal night.

Amongst ‘Interludes’ and ‘Photos’ and the ‘Chorus’, there is also ‘A Brief History of Jacques Corat, a minor character who trades in rifles for silver and gold, ivory and salt, slaves and horses, young girls and slight-boned boys, bundles of khat [weed] and artefacts purportedly belonging to [his hero the poet] Rimbaud.  Hirut’s meeting with Corat takes place simultaneously with the a spray of bullets striking three siblings who had failed in their valiant attempt to poison the invading Italians’ well.  She does not know that Navarro is ordered by Colonel Fucelli to take a photo of this atrocity.

There are scenes with Haile Selassie, haunted by his decision to send his daughter back to a man who beat her, struggling with impending defeat and desertion of his country to exile in England.  Bereft of a leader and an inspiration, Hirut reinvents the musician Minim as the shadow king of the book’s title, and the image of this ‘double’ guarded by the two imposing women soldiers Hirut and Aster becomes a defining symbol of Ethiopian resistance to invasion.

The combined effect of these vignettes of characters both significant and otherwise is to humanise the conflict and to make it real.  We read at Wikipedia that the Ethiopians were not outnumbered but rather outgunned by a massive discrepancy of modern weaponry and ultimately defeated in this Second Italo-Ethiopian war (1935-1937) … and it seems like a matter of numbers:

(330,000 mobilised)
4 tanks
7 armoured cars
200 artillery pieces
13 aircraft
(100,000 mobilised)
795 tanks
2,000 artillery pieces
595 aircraft

But when we read in The Shadow King that the Hirut’s much prized Wijugra rifle is forty years old, and that it fails to fire at a crucial moment, and that it is a man who dies, a much-loved man—it is a tragic human story.

The Shadow King has been widely reviewed both before and after its nomination for the Booker.  For other interesting aspects of the novel, see the one at the Boston Review, this one at the NYT, and this one that first brought the book to my attention, at the Johannesburg Review of Books. 

Author: Maaza Mengiste
Title: The Shadow King
Publisher: Canongate UK, 2019
ISBN: 9781838851392, pbk., 428 pages
Source: Kingston Library


  1. I must remember to return to this post when I finally pull this book off my TBR pile – lots of terrific background info to have.


    • It’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages:)
      BTW Here’s a tip: if you list your TBR at Goodreads, you can put a URL for a review you want to return to, in the Private Notes at the bottom.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] there is more to it than that… surely it must be a wonderful book to have edged out The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste? I am loving the books coming from Africa at the moment… Maaza Mengiste is from Ethiopia, but […]


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