SHADOW KING BY MAAZA MENGISTE, Reviewed by John Klassen (Article)



John Klassen


Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste Mengiste (1974-) was born in Addis Ababa, but left the country at the age of four when her family fled the Ethiopian Revolution. She spent the rest of her childhood in Nigeria, Kenya, and the USA. She studied in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar, and earned an MFA in creative writing from New York University.

Mengiste has published fiction and non-fiction dealing with migration, the Ethiopian revolution, and the plight of sub-Saharan immigrants arriving in Europe.

Her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010) is a story of a family struggling to survive the bloody years of the Ethiopian Revolution; it was named one of 10 best contemporary African books by The Guardian. The Shadow King (2019) is Mengiste’s second novel. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020.

The Shadow King

This is a very good, detailed, moving historical novel set in Ethiopia in 1935 at the time of the Italian invasion. It depicts cruelty and violence, but also courage, inspiration, and strength. One the attractions of the book is the powerful and illuminating writing. The first paragraph pulls the reader straight-in:

"She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones. She has come by foot and by bus to Addis Ababa, across terrain she has chosen to forget for nearly forty years. She is two days early but she will wait for him, seated on the ground in this corner of the train station, the metal box on her lap, her back pressed against the wall, rigid as a sentinel. She has put on the dress she does not wear every day. Her hair is neatly braided and sleek and she has been careful to hide the long scar that puckers at the base of her neck and trails over her shoulder like a broken necklace.”

This touches on key elements in the novel: unstoppable memory (“She does not want to remember”); “memory is gathering bones” is such a great phrase; the character (named Hirut, we learn shortly) is older now: nearly forty years have passed; she has painful memories that she has repressed, but something has brought them back to the front of her life, some painful things that are too deep to have been really forgotten; she has travelled some distance, on foot and bus, on a quest and will wait for two days for a man linked to those memories, some of which are contained in the metal box; she is poor: she will sit on the ground in the train station to wait; she is strong-willed and patient; she has suffered extreme violence.

And this, also in the first chapter:

"The real emperor of this country is on his farm tilling the tiny plot of land next to hers. He has never worn a crown and lives alone and has no enemies. He is a quiet man who once led a nation against a steel beast, and she was his most trusted soldier: the proud guard of the Shadow King. Tell them, Hirut. There is no time but now. She can hear the dead growing louder: We must be heard. We must be remembered. We must be known. We will not rest until we have been mourned. She opens the box."

The cadence, the words, the images are Homer:

“Sing to me of the man, Muse... /...Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, / start from where you will—sing for our time too.” (The Odyssey)

“Rage-Goddess, sing the rage of Pelus’ son Achilles, / murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, / hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls... / Begin, Muse...” (The Iliad)

And Virgil:

“Wars and the man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate... / Tell me, / Muse, how it all began.” (The Aeneid) (Translations by Robert Fagles).

And I hear Herodotus: “I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the colour from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.” (David Grene)

All this is not surprising. Mengiste often teaches a course on the literature of conflict, and the class always begins by reading a Greek tragedy. “I love the Greek tragedies,” she says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve read [the story of] Agamemnon and the Iliad. . . . I wanted to have the chorus because I was thinking that the way history is told is not the way that it unfolded. The chorus was a way to push against what is told and remembered.”

Mengiste also looked to the Iliad for inspiration in writing her gripping battle scenes. “I would read those battle scenes and not be able to breathe because there was just so much momentum in the prose. It gave me a great sense of the movement of battle, and I wanted to emulate that the best I could. It was fun. I really let the voice go free during battle.”

Many reviewers highlight how the novel portrays the roles of women in society and war, especially those who went beyond supplying the medical and logistical support essential to an army in the field, and became warriors who fought alongside men. This is true and the book pays tribute to the contribution of women who have long been relegated to the ‘shadows’ of Ethiopian history. To differing degrees, the female characters (all of whom are well-drawn, strong individuals) exhibit resilience, fortitude, and courage in the face of social, and war-related, violence, often sexual in nature.

Another theme is the effects of war on individuals, societies, relationships, and hopes for a future as a state, a group, a family, and a people. Mengiste explores the universal, conflicting effects of war in its liberating, limiting, glorifying, coarsening, exciting, terrifying, exhilarating, brutalizing elements.

A key subset is the conflicting, fluid roles of bystander-perpetrator-victim which Mengiste especially explores through one of the principal Italian characters: Ettore Navarra, a Jewish-Italian photographer with the Italian army. Ettore is basically a good man: too unquestioning of the notion that the national state should be supported in its greater destiny, but not twisted by racial or political prejudices; for him, war is an experience to record through photography (as Mengiste explores the shapes and effects of memory); he would consider himself an observant, almost neutral bystander. He becomes a victim, not of the Ethiopian war, but because of his Jewish ancestry that will strip him of his Italian nationhood and his parents. The two thrusts come together when Ettore fails two moral tests, the first preparing the way for the second; he becomes a perpetrator, or at the very least, an enabler, and commits increasingly terrible acts that he would never, ever had thought possible. It is Ettore whom Hirut is waiting for in the opening paragraph. The novel traces their backstory of the war and afterwards, and the avenues that finally bring them together again in the last pages. This scene is a brilliant distillation of history, personalities, and relationships.

Following are summaries of some of the many direct references and allusions to ancient Greek myths, writing, and persons throughout the novel. We can assume that Mengiste did not chose these at random—they meant something to her, and I think understanding them helps illuminate some of novel’s themes.

Daedalus and the Labyrinth

We all know the mythical story. Daedalus invented and built a labyrinth for King Minos of Crete in order to house the Minataur, but he was then imprisoned by the King.

Mengiste makes the metaphorical point when Ettore remembers his father saying to him: And when Daedalus built the labyrinth, Ettore, how could he have imagined his own imprisonment? We are all ‘imprisoned’ in the labyrinths of our own lives, our own histories, our own perceptions, our own myths, our own searches for identity and recognition; the labyrinths of life are full of hidden passages, false starts, dead ends, alternative paths. Layered onto this are the contingencies and pressures of relationships, society, and historical events. Every major character in the book is trapped in his/her own labyrinth. Some escape (Hirut, in a sense, in the end); most do not (Kidane—a major Ethiopian fighter, Ettore, Fucelli—the principal Italian commander); some we just don’t know about (Fifi—an enigmatic and mysterious Ethiopian woman who moves between both sides of the conflict). This is life, and Mengiste explores it through the facets, angles, and ambiguities of varied and strong characters.


Daedalus built wings for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape the labyrinth. The escape was successful, but Icarus ignored this father’s warning and flew too close the sun; the wax securing the feathers on the wings melted, and Icarus fell to his death.

Icarus flying, sweeping into the air against all laws of life, possibilities, and gravity, and then crashing to his death. This becomes a metaphor for the Ethiopians (men, women, children) thrown off an execution cliff (one of the most harrowing descriptions in the book is An Album of Death that catalogues the horror). Ettore (another step on the slippery slope of moral compromise) photographs the victims in the moments before they are thrown or pushed, moments when they confront the certainty of their deaths...he photographs them in the moment, the brief moment, when they are in the air before the immutable law of gravity takes hold.

The first reference to Icarus comes as Ettore speaks to his father, in his thoughts, when he surveys the horror of a gas attack on the Ethiopians:

“...Ettore says, Father, there is this: that man is fragile. That wood and metal can easily puncture a young throat. That Icarus fell today, again and again and we who are left behind in the tower can only grope in the dark and aim at nothing.” The second comes when Halie Selassie, safely secluded in England, sees photographs of victims: “It is all there but he cannot believe it: a bound figure splayed against the sun, a mortal man struggling with angelic flight, doomed by earthly sinew and muscle, betrayed by bone and flesh, held in place by tough rope and merciless wind. It is a new cruelty that drags itself up and settles heavily upon him, a second skin that traps him in a thick and pungent rot....Some men are inclined to flight, he thinks. Some men are angels that yearn for expansive skies. Some ache to free themselves from the gravitational bondage of Earth. Didn’t Icarus yearn for the same? Didn’t his father, that great Daedalus, make him wings to push him into his truest form? Wasn’t it only hubris that felled Icarus, and not the unnatural inclination toward flight? But it is useless to pretend: his men are falling from the sky. They are being pushed and thrown and they are breaking themselves on the terrain below.”

A perverse, but wonderfully crafted metaphor.


In The Iliad, Priam, King of Troy, makes an unannounced visit to the Greek camp and begs Achilles to return the body of his son, Hector. Achilles has been abusing the body for days, dragging it around the walls of Troy every morning, but the gods disapprove of this disrespect, and every night the form of the body is magically reconstituted and refreshed. Achilles is astonished at Priam’s visit, but in the end he grants the wish, spurred by thoughts of his own father and appreciation of the shared humanity of the father-son relationship.

I thought of this in two incidents involving Carlo Fucelli, the Italian army commander. The first was when three young, naive Ethiopian siblings were caught on their way to try to poison a well used by the Italians. They were shot and Fucelli ignored the pleas of their father not to subject them to the further indignity of their corpses being hanged.

The other was a much more consequential incident that more strongly recalled PriamAchilles. An Ethiopian, Tariku, is captured spying and is hanged from a tree (photographing this is Ettore’s first step onto the slippery slope of moral degradation). The body is left hanging, but in the night three Ethiopians, including the father, Seifu, steal into area, cut Tariku down and take the body away for burial. Fucelli anticipates this; he dismisses the guards in the area; he hides in the grass to watch the incident, but he does not interfere; he allows the father to reclaim his son. Fucelli is no Achilles, but like Achilles (although Mengiste does not elaborate on his thinking), he allows, even arranges for, this humane gesture in recognition of a father’s grief.


Simonides (c.556-468 BCE) was one of the principal Greek lyric poets. However, his appearance in The Shadow King (first by reference, and then (rather unsatisfactorily) as a spirit in the closing pages of the novel) is focused not on his poetry, but the possibly apocryphal story that he invented the ‘memory-palace’ technique used to assist with recalling persons/items, etc. The story is that through divine intervention, Simonides was called out of a banquet hall that then collapsed, killing everyone inside. The bodies were severely mangled, but Simonides could identify them by remembering where each person had been sitting at the banquet table.

In the novel, Halie Selassie recalls his tutor saying, “...we are explaining Simonides again...Memory is the gift of the divine. It is vast and labyrinthine. Imagine a palace, a building with many rooms. Put details in each room. Give them their rightful place. Light a candle inside the room and illuminate it brightly. Nothing is ever gone. It is always just within reach.”

This touches on a major theme of the novel: establishing, holding, recalling, reshaping, telling memory, and using variable, uncertain, ‘inaccurate’, amorphous memory in all its varied ways and purposes, sometimes to obscure rather than enlighten the past and hence the present.

Epithets Achilles/Hector/Nestor

A number of African men fought as mercenaries for the Italians. In the novel, the leader of these is a man named Ibrahim who faithfully and ruthlessly executes orders from Fucelli. Ibrahim is described as, “...courageous son of Ahmed, wondrous-voiced, swiftfooted tamer of horses...”.

This is Homeric phrasing: “tamer of horses” is an epithet for Hector in The Iliad, and “swift-footed” is used for Achilles. I think that Mengiste deliberately conflated the two great heroes, representing the two warring armies. In doing so, she presents Ibrahim as a many-sided personality (which we see unfold throughout the novel), reflecting again the theme of the ‘labyrinth”: the unknown, unimaginable, unknowable facets of individual personalities.

I could find no epithet for “wondrous-voiced”, but do note that one used for Nestor in The Iliad, is “sweet-spoken”. Nestor was an older, much respected leader on the Greek side, who often gave advice on strategy and actions, and even tried to mitigate the sharp disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon at Troy.

By conflating the three, perhaps Mengiste is metaphorically presenting the martial skills of Hector and Achilles, tempered by the more mature wisdom of Nestor, in the single personality of Ibrahim. Like Hector and Achilles, Ibrahim performs a singular, pivotal act that drives the narrative to conclusion.

Sons of Apollo, and Memnon

The quote from the novel is Fucelli speaking: “Rome wants me to treat them [the Ethiopians] as simple bandits, but they’re going to fight like dark sons of Apollo. Memnon was shielded by Zeus, why doesn’t Rome understand this?”

Memnon is not mentioned in The Iliad, but his exploits and death at Troy are detailed in the post-Homeric poem, The Fall of Troy by Quintus Smyrnaeus who wrote sometime in the 4th century CE. In this version, after the death of Hector, Memnon, an Ethiopian warrior-king, went to Troy, “leading on / Host numberless, Aethiopia’s swarthy sons.” Memnon is to be the saviour, after the death of Hector. A fierce battle ensues between the two sides. As expected, it finally comes down to a titanic fight between Achilles and Memnon—evenly matched in strength and ferocity. The gods were divided in their support. Zeus warned beforehand that there was to be no favouritism but, as the fight between the two champions raged on and on, “ the behest to Zeus / The twin Fates suddenly stood beside these twain, / One dark—her shadow fell on Memnon’s heart; / One bright—her radiance haloed Pelus’ son. / And with a great cry the Immortals saw, / And filled with sorrow they of the one part were, / They of the other with triumphant joy.”

The two heroes continued the fight, “But Eris now inclined / The fatal scales of battle, which no more / Were equal-poised.” Achilles slays Memnon. Memnon’s mother was Eos, goddess of Dawn. She comes to take Memnon’s body away for the proper rites, and the whole host of Memnon’s soldiers disappear with her. So the Trojans are left bereft.

In invoking Memnon (“we are fighting the army of Memnon”) Fucelli is pointing to a warrior-hero who might give encouragement to Ethiopian fighters but who, in the end, was defeated and killed. As Fucelli says later in the story: “”Behold the enemy now in the dust rising on the horizon. See their might but do not be deceived: they will come as Memnon came for Achilles. And they will die just the same.”

Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons

The Amazons are mentioned only briefly in The Iliad, by Priam, describing how he was in Phrygia when the Amazons struck and that they were: “a match for men in war”. The Iliad contains no reference to Penthesilea, but the first chapter of Smyrnaeus’s work details her involvement at Troy, her prowess as a warrior, and her death at the hands of Achilles.

The reference in The Shadow King arises in conversation between Fucelli and Ettore on growing concerns among Italian soldiers about an army of Amazons, represented by the captured Hirut and Astor, another leading female character. Fucelli is aware of the power of myths and symbols to sap resolve. Ettore finally understands what Fucelli is driving at: “The men have to find a way to believe something else....They have to believe they’re Achilles, the Achilles who lived to defeat his enemies.” This is the beginning of Fucelli’s plan to undermine the Amazon image by dehumanizing Hirut and Astor through Ettore’s photographs of them naked, beaten, isolated, depressed.

Paterazm. Guerra. Pólemos.

A prostitute sleeping with Ettore recognizes the Italian word for war, and speaks the three words above which are Amharic, Italian, and Ancient Greek...Mengiste sees connections everywhere across time and place.

Tags: John Klassen