In Ethiopia, A Monarch Falls In 'The Lion's Gaze'

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Maaza Mengiste i

Beneath The Lion's Gaze is Maaza Mengiste's first novel. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and now lives in New York. hide caption

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Maaza Mengiste

Beneath The Lion's Gaze is Maaza Mengiste's first novel. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and now lives in New York.

A 3,000-year-old monarchy is said to have ended in 1975 with a pillow to the face. Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, was thought to be a descendant of King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba. It is widely believed that after 40 years on the throne, Selassie was murdered in his bed by revolutionaries — too impatient to wait for an old man to die in peace.

Those last days of the monarchy and the brutal beginnings of the Derg, the socialist military junta that replaced it, provide the backdrop of Maaza Mengiste's first novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze. Mengiste tells the story of a family and a nation, at war with itself.

Mengiste was born in Ethiopia, during the early days of the revolution, she tells NPR's Gwen Thompkins. The novel takes place in her home city of Addis Ababa. Although she left when she was young, Mengiste still had family and returned on a regular basis, particularly when she was writing her book.

Mengiste recalls that when emperor Halie Selassie died in August 1975, the day after he died, the Derg — the regime that took over — announced that he had died of natural causes from surgery.

'Beneath The Lion's Gaze' Book Cover
Beneath The Lion's Gaze
By Maaza Mengiste
Hardcover, 305 pages
W. W. Norton & Company
List price: $ 16.47
Read An Excerpt

"But everyone knew that wasn't the case," Mengiste says. Still, it wasn't until the fall of the Derg in the early 1990s that it became widely believed that he was either smothered or strangled. She tried to use this historical background to imagine the emperor's last moments:

"I was trying to imagine not just this man — this emperor, that could trace his lineage back 3,000 years to King Soloman — but I was trying to think what it would feel like to be an 82-, 83-year-old man and suddenly isolated from everyone that you know ... quite possibly facing the last days of your life."

Mengiste also addresses Selassie's effects on the Ethiopians who lived under his rule. The emperor was known as a man who awarded some and neglected many. Mengiste focuses particularly on a famine that helped to usher in the end of Selassie's days.

"As I was researching," she said, "I was trying to answer my own questions, about how could the famine get this bad." As the characters in the novel conclude: "Help did come, but it didn't happen fast enough."

The famine in Ethiopia was a catalyzing factor that propelled action against the throne.

"The famine really was the thing that just broke the flood gates of unrest," Mengiste says. "There was already protest going on, there were demonstrations. The army was upset with poor pay and living conditions. People wanted reform. There were deep, deep class divisions and ethnic conflict, and then, everybody started hearing about this famine and how bad it was — and that was it."

The military coup that brought the monarchy down was led by the group that called itself "The Derg," led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who does not figure in the novel by name.

"I had to make a decision in this book," Mengiste explains, "as to when I would stick to historical fact, or historical names, and when I would begin to use fictional accounts and fictional names. With the emperor, because he was a legend, and such a myth in many ways, I was able to work with him as a fiction writer."

The Derg leader, on the other hand, was "very, very real, very immediate." Mengiste says she "wanted this book to be about the victims of the Derg, not exactly [about] the perpetrators of this violence. I wanted to focus on those who suffered."

It has been estimated that hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives during the 15 years the Derg was in power — but its leader, Mengistu, is still alive, living in Zimbabwe. Mengiste says her decision not to use his name in her book was not meant to "protect the guilty."

"For me, it wasn't about sparing him," Mengiste explains. "It was about exposing the humanity and the devastation of those people who suffered under his rule."

She says if she had included Mengistu in the book, he would have "overshadowed" the stories of his victims. She hopes that telling their stories will cause readers to question why he remains free and unpunished.

"I am hoping that if we can understand the humanity of those who suffered through this, that we start to investigate beyond the pages of this book," she says.

Excerpt: 'Beneath The Lion's Gaze'

Beneath The Lion's Gaze
Beneath The Lion's Gaze
By Maaza Mengiste
Hardcover, 305 pages
W. W. Norton & Company
List price: $ 16.47

A thin blue vein pulsed in the collecting pool of blood where a bullet had lodged deep in the boy's back. Hailu was sweating under the heat from the bright operating room lights. There was pressure behind his eyes. He leaned his head to one side and a nurse's ready hand wiped sweat from his brow. He looked back at his scalpel, the shimmering blood and torn tissues, and tried to imagine the fervor that had led this boy to believe he was stronger than Emperor Haile Selassie's highly trained police.

This boy had come in shivering and soaked in his own blood, in the latest American-style jeans with wide legs, and now he wasn't moving. His mother's screams hadn't stopped. Hailu could still hear her just beyond those doors, standing in the hallway. More doors led outside to an ongoing struggle between students and police. Soon, more injured students would fill the emergency rooms and this work would begin all over again. How old was this boy?

'Doctor?' a nurse said, her eyes searching his above her surgical mask. The heart monitor beeped steadily. All was normal, Hailu knew without looking, he could understand the body's silent language without the help of machinery. Years of practice had taught him how to decipher what most patients couldn't articulate. These days were teaching him more: that the frailty of our bodies stems from the heart and travels to the brain. That what the body feels and thinks determines the way it stumbles and falls.

'How old is he?' he asked. Is he the same age as my Dawit, he thought, one of those trying to lead my youngest son into this chaos? His nurses drew back like startled birds. He never spoke during surgery, his focus on his patients so intense that it had become legendary. His head nurse, Almaz, shook her head to stop anyone from answering him.

'He has a bullet in his back that must be taken out. His mother is waiting. He is losing blood.' Almaz spoke quickly, her eyes locked on his, professional and stern. She sponged blood away from the wound and checked the patient's vital signs.

The hole in the boy's back was a punctured, burned blast of muscle and flesh. The run towards the bullet had been more graceful than his frightened sprint away. Hailu imagined him keeping pace with the throngs of other high school and college students, hands raised, voice loud. The thin, proud chest inflated, his soft face determined. A boy living his moment of manhood too early. How many shots had to be fired to turn this child back towards his home and anxious mother? Who had carried him to her once he'd fallen? Stones. Bullets. Fists. Sticks. So many ways to break a body, and none of these children seemed to believe in the frailty of their muscles and bones. Hailu cut around the wound and paused for one of his nurses to wipe the blood that flowed.

The whine of police cars flashed past the hospital. The sirens hadn't stopped all day. Police and soldiers were overwhelmed and racing through streets packed with frenzied protestors running in all directions. What if Dawit were there amidst those running, what if he were wheeled into his operating room? Hailu focused on the limp body in front of him, ignored his own hammering heart, and put thoughts of his son out of his mind.

Hailu sat in his office under a pale light that threaded its way through open curtains. He stared at his hand lying palm open in his lap and felt the solitude and panic that had been eating into the edges of his days since his wife Selam had gone into the hospital. Seven days of confusion. And he'd just operated on a boy for a gunshot wound to the back. After years as a doctor, he knew the rotations and shifts of his staff, the scheduled surgeries in any given week, Prince Mekonnen Hospital's daily capacity for new patients, but he could not account for his wife's deteriorating condition and this relentless drive of students who demanded action to address the country's poverty and lack of progress. They asked again and again when Ethiopia's backward slide into the Middle Ages would stop. He had no answers, could do nothing but sit and gaze in helplessness at an empty hand that looked pale and thin in the afternoon sun. He feared for Dawit, his youngest son, who also wanted to enter the fray, who was not much older or bigger, nor more brave, than his permanently crippled patient today. His wife was leaving him to carry the burden of these days alone.

There was a knock at his door. He looked at his watch, a gift given to him by Emperor Haile Selassie when he'd returned from medical school in England. The emperor's piercing eyes, rumored to hold the power to break any man's will, had bore into Hailu during the special palace ceremony to honor young graduates recently returned from abroad.

'Do not waste your hours and minutes on foolish dreams,' the emperor had said, his voice cool and crisp. 'Make Ethiopia proud.'

The knock came again. 'Dr. Hailu,' Almaz said.

'Come in,' Hailu said, turning in his chair to face the door.

'You've finished your shift.' She stood in the doorway. 'You're still here.' Almaz, in her usual custom, turned all her questions into declarations. She cleared her throat and adjusted the collar of her white nurse's uniform. She matched him in height, very tall for a woman.

'There was a teachers' union strike,' he said. 'The emperor's forbid the police to shoot at anyone, but look what happened already.' He sighed tiredly. 'I want to make sure no other emergencies come in. And I need to check on Selam soon.'

Almaz raised a hand to stop him. 'I already checked on her, she's sleeping. There's nothing for you to do here anymore,' she said. 'You've already done your shift, go home.'

'My sons have to see her,' Hailu said. 'I'll go and come back.'

Almaz shook her head. 'Your wife always complained about your stubbornness.' She took his coat from the hanger on the door and held it out for him. 'You've been working too hard this week. You think I haven't noticed.'

Almaz was his most trusted colleague. They had been working together for nearly two decades. He could feel her searching his face. The rattle of a heavy falling object echoed in the corridor. It was coming from beyond the swinging doors, from the intensive care unit.

'What was that?' Hailu asked. He stood up and walked over to get his coat. It was then he realized how tired he was. He hadn't eaten since the night before in Selam's room, and he'd spent the entire day operating.

Almaz shook her head and led him out of his office. She closed the door gently behind them and motioned him towards the exit. 'I'll tell you later. Something with one of the prisoners.'

In the last few weeks, the ICU ward, headed by another doctor, had become the designated location for some of the emperor's officials, old men well past their prime who had been arrested without charges and had fallen ill while in prison because of preexisting ailments and lack of medical supervision. So far, the hospital had been able to function normally, no irregular activity to bring undue attention to their new, special patients.

From the direction of the noise came an angry male voice, a sharp slap, then a soft whimper. 'What's going on?' he asked again, turning around.

'They've got soldiers watching one of them,' Almaz said. She pushed him on, away from the ICU. 'There's nothing you can do about it, so don't concern yourself.' The expression on her angular face, with its pointed jaw and thin mouth, was determined. 'Go.' She walked away, into another patient's room.

Hailu looked down at the long hallway that stretched in front of him and sighed. There was a time when he could tell what went on beyond the hospital by what he heard from inside of it, when he could piece together the shouts and brake squeals and laughter and let logic carry him to a safe assumption. But these days of riots and demonstrations made everything indecipherable. And now, what was once beyond the walls had crept inside. He turned back and decided to leave through the swinging doors of the intensive care unit, a shortcut to the parking lot.

In the corridor of the ICU, a smooth-faced soldier no older than Dawit sat in a chair outside a room cleaning his nails with the edge of a faded button on his shirt. An old gun, dull and scratched, leaned against the wall next to him. The soldier glanced up as Hailu walked by, then turned his attention back to his nails. He chewed on a finger, then spit bits of calloused skin on the floor.

Reprinted from Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste. Copyright (c) 2010 by Maaza Mengiste. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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