The Body Is a Battlefield: On Maaza Mengiste’s “The Shadow King”

Francesca Capossela appreciates “The Shadow King” by Maaza Mengiste, which explores the role women played in the Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion.

The Body Is a Battlefield: On Maaza Mengiste’s “The Shadow King”

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. W. W. Norton & Company. 448 pages.

MAAZA MENGISTE’S SECOND NOVEL, The Shadow King, is set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. A beautiful and thoughtful epic, the book celebrates the role of women in the Ethiopian resistance, illuminating how (as Mengiste writes in her author’s note) “[t]he story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle.” In addition to memorializing the centrality of women in war, however, The Shadow King goes a step further and masterfully illustrates how being a woman in this world is itself so often a kind of warfare.

The reader is guided through The Shadow King by its central female characters: Hirut, the young orphaned servant for whom the novel is a kind of Bildungsroman, and Aster, Hirut’s jealous and violent employer who gloriously leads the Ethiopian women into battle. We are introduced to the Cook, a Madame Defarge–like mastermind, and Ferres, an Ethiopian prostitute employed by an Italian colonel who is also a spy for the Ethiopian army. A “chorus” occasionally speaks, most often to describe past events and bear witness to acts of cruelty against women that might otherwise go unnoticed. But the novel’s scope is not limited by gender or nationality. We spend time in the thoughts of Kidane, Aster’s husband, as well as army photographer Ettore Navarra, an Italian Jew who comes to realize his own grim future. We even see into the mind of the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. The result, though at times disjointed, is a work that feels woven from many interconnected viewpoints — a story told through collaboration.

Mengiste’s narration is fluid, moving between characters, as well as forward and backward in time. Sometimes we see the same event from multiple perspectives, and certain thoughts are shared by different characters. The most explicit narrative device, occasionally providing a frame for specific scenes, is a metal box that contains Ettore Navarra’s most prized possessions and relics from the war. This box — filled with the photographs of Ethiopians that Ettore was hired to take, as well as newspaper clippings and his personal letters — has come into the possession of Hirut. Several chapters, each called “Photograph,” are devoted to describing these artifacts. But the book is not only made up of what is documented and preserved; Hirut’s, Kidane’s, and Aster’s unwritten memories and experiences are recorded alongside Ettore’s documents.

The Shadow King grapples with what is communal and what is shared, even between the bitterest enemies. And Mengiste’s use of a shifting point of view is generous: no character is too irrelevant — or too immoral — to become momentarily central, to be given a voice. When, in a flashback, Aster enters her marriage bedroom for the first time, knowing that she will be raped by her husband, the chorus tells her: “There is no way out but through it. There’s no escape but what you make from the inside.” Later, Ettore Navarra remembers his father’s words: “There is no way but forward, my son. That is the only true escape.” And, still later, when the cruelest Italian, Colonel Fucelli, is rousing his men for battle, he tells them: “There is no way but through. There’s no escape but forward.”

It is almost shocking that the advice given to a young girl about to be raped is the same as the battle cry of a brutal colonialist commander. But Mengiste’s narrative defies the moralistic view that could so easily be applied to this conflict. Instead, she emphasizes the similarities between characters’ experiences, and the constancy of suffering. We are privy to the tyrannical father behind the brutal Fucelli, the rapist Kidane’s mourning for his dead son, and the guilt and remorse the fugitive emperor feels for abandoning both his country and the daughter he forced to marry a cruel husband. Mengiste does not absolve these characters of their atrocities, but she recognizes that they have all been split and fragmented by trauma. They bear wounds from the past, and multiple, sometimes conflicting identities — as, for example, emperor and father. It is the human condition­ to be traumatized — in a bedroom, on the battlefield — and to learn, or fail to learn, how to escape “from the inside.”

For Mengiste’s characters, escape is made possible by light and by shadow. Sunlight vividly fills almost every scene of The Shadow King: it “quivers,” “crack[s] like a whip,” “slants,” “zigzags,” and “skids”; it is a “square box of light,” “a fist of sunlight,” “a drop of sun,” at times “tender,” “predatory,” or “dying.” Light floods the Italian camp where Ethiopians are thrown over a cliff edge to die, and it suffuses the quiet residence in Bath, England, where the emperor has fled with his family. It illuminates scenes of loving intimacy and scenes of rape. Sunlight always finds a way in, even if through “a tiny hole […] dug out of the wall like an afterthought.” Light is also a weapon deployed by both armies: the Ethiopians use pieces of glass to reflect sunbeams and send coded messages, and the Italians photograph their prisoners in order to doubly “capture” the Ethiopians, fixing them in the glare of a colonial gaze.

But the most crucial function of light in the novel is its creation of shadow selves, dark twins for each character. “Every visible body is surrounded by light and shade,” Ettore’s father writes in his last letter, telling his son not to return to Italy because the Jews are being rounded up. Mengiste uses this polarity of light and shade not as a clichéd moral about good and evil, but rather as an acknowledgment that every human body is a site of war, of internal conflict, of a division between disparate selves that cannot unify. When Aster is raped by Kidane, she feels herself “splitting” and “hovering over herself.” When Hirut is raped by Kidane much later, she “watches her own spirit stand from her stained body and walk away”; she feels she is “only folded flesh to be forced apart.” This forcing apart, this splitting, refers to both the physical act of rape and to the way that that act forces the victim to dissociate their body from their spirit, to become a self and a shadow.

Grief, like rape, splits characters into multiple selves. Kidane, whose son Tesfaye died in infancy, speaks to the child frequently; the ghost lives within him. Emperor Haile Selassie, whose daughter was 14 when he forced her to marry a man who is almost 50 for political reasons and was 16 when she died under dubious circumstances, is likewise haunted. Both men are split by grief: they carry their ghosts with them, so that, like Hirut and Aster, they are not one unified self but rather thresholds where the living meets the dead, where light meets shadow.

It is in this inner conflict — and in realizing that a unified identity is impossible — that the power to resist lies. The turning point for the Ethiopian army comes via Minim, an army musician whose name means “nothing.” Sitting around the fire one night, Hirut realizes that Minim is the emperor’s double: they look identical. Over the following days and weeks, Aster and Kidane train Minim to act like a king: they dress him in royal clothes and eventually lead him through Ethiopian villages, where the villagers are inspired by the return of their emperor. The poor musician becomes a symbol of hope; he is called a “Shadow King.” In allowing himself to lose himself, to become his own double, Minim’s shadow self becomes a weapon, a source of power.

When Hirut is captured on the battlefield and thrown into an Italian prison alongside Aster, she spends her days staring straight ahead, ignoring the taunts of the Italian guards in order to prove her worth as a soldier. Though she is no longer with her comrades, she is “still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps […] that is where it has always been.” The irony of women’s role in war, Mengiste suggests, is that they are already at war — with the men that attempt to control them, with their own psyches. The female soldiers in The Shadow King fight numerous battles, in several arenas, including within themselves.

Just as the power to resist the Italians comes in the form of a doubling, so Hirut overcomes her own trauma by allowing herself to exist as both split and whole. The prison guards think that “she cannot see herself, double-bodied and split, clothed and naked, young and old,” but she is aware of her doubleness, recognizing herself as “Hirut, daughter of Getey and Fasil, born in the year of a blessed harvest.” She carries not only herself but also the presence of her mother and father, and the cultural significance of the harvest. She is many selves, histories, and people, folded into one. Every human body is a battlefield, but as Hirut learns, the body is also a site of congregation. In the final pages of the novel, Ettore Navarra echoes a phrase of his father’s, a phrase he has come to associate with Hirut: “The boundaries of bodies are the least of all things.” The truth of human experience lies in trauma, in the split self, in the ghosts of the dead, and in the unlikely connections between strangers and enemies.


Francesca Capossela is currently pursuing a master's of Philosophy in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin. Her writing has appeared in Hanging Loose Magazine, The Point Magazine, and She is working on her first novel.

LARB Contributor

Francesca Capossela is currently pursuing a master's of Philosophy in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin. Her writing has appeared in Hanging Loose Magazine, The Point Magazine, and She is working on her first novel.


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