Beneath the Lion's Gaze
Growing up in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, my understanding of Ethiopia was inextricably linked to a media phenomenon which peaked before I was even born: Live Aid. Images of famine in Ethiopia remained commonplace, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood that ‘giving my f-ing money’ wouldn’t ultimately solve problems that were political, structural and historical. The children I saw on TV were not simply victims of drought, but also of civil war and a repressive, failing government.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze offers an insight into some of that history. Written by a diaspora author, who was born in Addis Ababa in the early 1970s and left the country during the early years of the revolution, the novel attempts to give readers like me, with no knowledge, a sense of the divisions, hopes and fears of Ethiopians at a turning point in the country’s history.
The book centres on the family of Hailu, a prominent doctor in Addis. His wife is dying, his first son is trying to hold his new family together, and his younger son is becoming increasingly radicalised at university. Around them are an array of neighbours, local workers and household staff, most of whom vocalise the viewpoints of the less affluent inhabitants of the city.
Beginning in 1974, on the eve of revolution, Maaza Mengiste is effective at drawing the confusion and chaos of those early months. The generational divide is stark; Hailu and his second son, Dawit, remain at loggerheads for much of the story. Perhaps it’s a sign I’m getting old, but Hailu’s perspective was much more sympathetic to me. Dawit displayed the zeal of a radical, seeing life in black and white, but lacked understanding of politics or real life. His sheltered upbringing enabled him to truly believe in the revolution, in a way that was increasingly frustrating, and ultimately, unsurprisingly, led to him facing challenging choices and endangering those he loved.
Some of the imagery Mengiste used was shocking – one particular death was heart-breaking – but none of us felt especially connected to any of the characters. There was so much story in the book that this sometimes detracted from getting to know the individuals. As an overview of Ethiopian history, the book was a helpful entry point to a complex situation. But we would have loved to have focused on two or three of the characters’ perspectives and explored them in real depth.
One of the first books we read as a group was also diaspora fiction, based in Cambodia . Beneath the Lion’s Gaze similarly felt at a distance. However, where In the Shadow of the Banyan felt like it was telling a very particular perspective (and there was no room for grey), Mengiste went to great lengths to show as many views as possible, without judgement, suggesting an author herself trying to reconcile with so much going so wrong so quickly.
Surprisingly, there were only a few mentions of food in the book, but we weren’t going to pass up the chance to sample one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in London, The Queen of Sheba in Kentish Town. Between us we shared a meat and a vegetarian (vegan) selection, both, of course, served on injera (Ethiopia’s soft, spongy, slightly sour flatbread). Each of the dishes was beautifully spiced and the injera kept on coming, thanks to the friendly and attentive staff, so that we were absolutely stuffed by the end of the evening.
The restaurant is small and was packed, even on a Monday night, so we’d definitely recommend booking, and making the trip up to Kentish Town. If you’re looking for a drink afterwards to digest before heading home, the Bull & Gate across the road has a real fireplace and sumptuous sofas upstairs in a drawing room-like cocktail bar, well suited to the discussion of books.
Chosen & Written by Meera.