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Beneath the Lion's Gaze: A Novel [Hardcover]

Maaza Mengiste

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Book Description

31 Mar 2010
This memorable, heartbreaking story opens in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1974, on the eve of a revolution. Yonas kneels in his mother s prayer room, pleading to his god for an end to the violence that has wracked his family and country. His father, Hailu, a prominent doctor, has been ordered to report to jail after helping a victim of state-sanctioned torture to die. And Dawit, Hailu s youngest son, has joined an underground resistance movement a choice that will lead to more upheaval and bloodshed across a ravaged Ethiopia. Beneath the Lion s Gaze tells a gripping story of family, of the bonds of love and friendship set in a time and place that has rarely been explored in fiction. It is a story about the lengths human beings will go in pursuit of freedom and the human price of a national revolution. Emotionally gripping, poetic, and indelibly tragic, Beneath The Lion s Gaze is a transcendent and powerful debut."

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[Mengiste's] honors do not belie her skill, for this book is stunning. "

Book Description

An epic tale of a father and two sons, of betrayals and loyalties, of a family unraveling in the wake of Ethiopia's revolution. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "This country has grown too many teeth." 27 Dec 2009
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Maaza Mengiste's dramatic debut novel, set in her home country of Ethiopia in 1974, brings to life the historical period from the death of Emperor Haile Selassie through the communist revolution and the subsequent resistance movement which followed shortly on its heels. The Emperor had failed to take action during a horrific famine in the remote countryside which had cost two hundred thousand lives. A 1974 television documentary which showed the Ethiopian public the famine's horrors, juxtaposed against films of the excesses of palace functions, set the country up for revolution. Initially planned by students who wanted more accountability and change, the revolution was soon pre-empted by the strong military, and within a year, the repressive forces, known as the Derg, had consolidated their power, arresting many of the students who had made the revolution possible. The Derg then began its "War of Annihilation" against any form of opposition, executing former heroes, taking over private enterprise, clamping down on free speech, and arresting, torturing, and executing dissidents.

Mengiste's novel takes a careful look at these times, reducing the grand scale of the famine and its political aftermath to understandable human terms by concentrating on one family and its friends and acquaintances in Addis Ababa, the capital. Hailu, a physician, and his wife Selam have two sons, Yonas, who is thirty-two, and Dawit, age twenty-four, a college student. Dawit inevitably becomes active in revolutionary activities which result in the overthrow of the emperor, while Yonas is more concerned with protecting his wife Sara and his four-year-old daughter Tizita. Their family, friends, employees, and acquaintances, seen in lively and often moving scenes, provide a multi-leveled view of the country and its problems in 1974.

The author enlivens her often grim narrative by creating characters with whom the reader can identify, providing small, realistic details which make the characters feel like people we know. Ethiopia's grand-scale problems are examined within the smaller contexts of parent/child disagreements, sibling rivalries, romantic conflicts, jealousies, and simmering personal resentments against people who have ignored their roots in their drive for power. As all the characters become drawn into the larger political conflicts, the reader is shocked by the extreme cruelty, both physical and emotional, of those who are in power. The seemingly random attacks by the military's "thought police" create overwhelming public fear, and the display of tortured bodies in the neighborhoods in which these victims once lived makes normal life impossible.

The novel is well constructed, but it is often difficult to read. The violence, which increases in intensity over the course of three hundred pages, involves false arrests, beatings, rapes, psychological warfare, brutal tortures, and the mutilation deaths of women and young children. The author's dedication to presenting a full picture of the inhuman behavior of the country's powerful leaders and misguided followers, however, creates unforgettable tableaux, and makes the reader yearn for change in the aftermath of the novel. Mary Whipple
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An incredible lesson in weaving together narrative and history. 26 Feb 2010
By NYC_READER_X - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The tremendous difficulty in writing a historical novel is striving to find a balance between narrative and history. The reader of historical fiction is either aware of the history of the story she reads; or is "interested" in the history of the story he reads. Likewise, the writer of a historical novel is often entirely focused on his story; or similarly focused on the history that's irrevocably connected to her story.

It is in managing to strike the perfect balance between these dialectics that a book is either successful or not. Maaza Mengiste's Beneath the Lion's Gaze is a powerful novel that successfully manages to do this. She has written a gripping tale, yet at the same time it is clearly evident that she is intent on teaching us about this very important part of Ethiopian history.

It is this aspect of Beneath the Lion's Gaze that forces a reader to ask himself/herself: what do we know of Ethiopia? On a populist level, we know about their runners. We "know" about the very public famine that was televised all over Europe and in the United States. And we "know" of Kapusinski's fictionalized tale of Emperor Haile Selassie. Which is interesting because the educated reader "knows" more about the former Emperor than of the Communist revolution that cost the lives of so many and that pitted families, neighbors and loved ones against each other.

This is precisely why Maaza Mengiste's novel is such an important work. She demands that her reader truly scrutinize what we think we "know" of Ethiopia. And to imagine a reality that has never been presented to us, the Western reader, until now. In this wonderfully constructed tale of a doctor and his family, and how each member of his family is forced to come to grips with the revolution, she paints a vivid picture of the humanity that isn't present in a history textbook, or in Kapusinski's allegorical tale. [Beneath the Lion's Gaze, unlike Lorraine Adams' review in the NY Times, is ultimately about this family and not about Haile Selassie.] And in the process, Maaza Mengiste challenges us to try to understand this very important moment in human history.

The events of our world in the recent years have tested our humanity in so many ways. If we look at how we interact with news, the "facts" and "fiction" of the world around us, it is easy to see how divided we are. In Beneath the Lion's Gaze, Maaza Mengiste, explores just how our humanity can be impacted by our leaders and their visions. In showing best friends at odds; brothers, so similar in appearance and in their capacity to love, yet so different ideologically; a husband and wife, who love each other and their daughter, and whose love is tested by the daily horrors of the Derg; and a highly respected doctor, who is questioned and incarcerated and who emerges a shadow of himself, Maaza Mengiste makes every reader of Beneath the Lion's Gaze a part of this family, a part of this history and connects us to the Ethiopian people. How many historical novels accomplish this much?

At the same time, I felt as though I was involved in a meticulously researched tale. And ultimately, I'm willing to accept Maaza Mengiste's descriptions--which sometimes are presented through metaphor and sometimes horrifically blunt. Perhaps I am willing to follow her through this tale because her story forces me to challenge my own humanity, and look at the world around me. Throughout Beneath the Lion's Gaze, I felt sympathy for some characters, empathy for others, and more often than not I felt guilty as well. I was forced to question what I would do in the face of such horror, and what I know I could never do.

I look forward to her next novel.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Middle of the road 13 Dec 2012
By E. Smiley - Published on Amazon.com
I didn't have high expectations for this one: I was expecting another earnest but poorly-written book published on the strength of covering awful events in a time and place most Americans know little about. As it turns out, I did like it more than I expected.

Beneath the Lion's Gaze is set in 1970's Ethiopia, a time of enormous upheaval: following a devastating famine and governmental inaction, student protests led to a revolution, overthrowing the hereditary monarch. The revolution was quickly co-opted by the military, which, claiming to set up a communist government, ushered in a period of terror and repression. This book covers about four years and mostly follows one extended family--a father, two adult sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter--along with some of their friends and neighbors. The married son just wants peace, while the single one becomes a high-profile dissident; meanwhile, their father, a doctor, faces a terrible dilemma when the military demands that he treat a torture victim.

The story is interesting and the short chapters move it along relatively quickly. If you've read other books about life under oppressive regimes, you know what to expect here: there are some ugly scenes, including violence against children. But Mengiste balances the bloody parts with scenes dealing with family relations and everyday life; the book never feels like a simple news report. It is, however, far from a light read; the characters' attempts to do good consistently make things worse, and there's little hope in the inconclusive final pages.

Neither the characterization nor the writing style is anything to write home about, but even so, I rather liked the book. The author's observations and imagery ring true, and the plot kept my interest. If the characters often seem more like representatives of various opinions and experiences than actual people, it's still nice to have a range of them represented, from dissidents to soldiers to collaborators. Even the less sympathetic characters are believable and treated fairly.

As for the historical aspect, the book certainly piqued my interest in Ethiopia; I might have liked a more in-depth look at events, but can't complain about the book's focusing primarily on the family. There's a decent sense of place, with some good descriptions of the country.

Overall, this isn't among the best civilians-in-wartime books I've read, but nor is it among the worst. A decent choice if you're interested in Ethiopia, African fiction generally, or civilian life during revolutions and military dictatorships.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You say you want a revolution.... 17 Mar 2010
By Richard Aubrey - Published on Amazon.com
Maaza Mengiste's "Beneath The Lion's Gaze" provides the view of an observant insider to a horrendous historical chapter few of us knew, or even tried to follow.
Beginning with the last of the emperors of Ethiopia--detailed as if by a courtier who went everywhere and knew everybody and everything--the novel moves along into the repression by the military government.
Mengiste tells us, because sometimes we forget, that the repression techniques were exported by the Soviets and their cohorts in East Germany and elsewhere, who were advisors to the local power structure.
Mengiste uses the trials of the extended family of a well-off and urban physician, and some of their friends, to show us how things went. Some are disappeared, some are killed, some resist, some are tortured.
In an average story, we read of the characters. In a superb story, we identify with the characters, sometimes asking ourselves if we would do this, or risk that. Mengiste gets us asking these questions repeatedly.
I have one quibble. A collaborator, a friend of the family, is presented as inadequate in several ways. We'd like to believe that tyrannies attract the inadequate and the incompetent and the self-doubters, as a way of making up for their shortcomings. That might be true. But, inadequate and lacking in self-esteem as they might be, an organized tyranny is the hardest thing in the world to face.
They have the power. They have the communications. They have subverted your neighbors. It's easier to be brave when it's yourself. It's tougher when your act of courage, should you be caught or killed and identified, will cost your family deaths of horrifying torture.
Mengiste shows us just how much power the tyranny has, despite the resistance and the hopes of the people.
We even see idealistic young students fooling themselves about such things because...they might get into med school in Cuba or something.
During the Second World War, the resistance in various occupied countries had support from the outside, the British Special Operations Executive, the US OSS, the Jedburgh teams, the weapons and supplies, the promise that, sooner or later, the outside world would come to their aid.
The Ethiopian resistance had none of this.
Mengiste asks the reader the question; Would you fight?
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and moving 23 Jan 2010
By John Roemer - Published on Amazon.com
This a well-written and gripping debut. I hate to think what she will produce when she comes of age. THis is a novel about horrors of revolution,tragedies that grip Africa, and the resilience of human spirit in the midst of turmoil and pain. The emotions here are raw and the images (especially of torture and pain) at times too vivid. I recommend it.
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