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New Book – “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze”

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January 6, 2010

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Meaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

Alone among African nations, the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia never submitted to colonialism. (It chased the Italians out in 1941 after a five-year occupation.) Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s emperor, was welcomed in European capitals as an equal and, thanks to Marcus Garvey (who later angrily broke with him), became the black Messiah of the Rastafarian movement. Reggae brought him permanently into American pop culture.
Yet the King of Kings, as Selassie liked to be called, was something less than the Conquering Lion of Judah that was the symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy. When the Italians invaded, this supposedly ferocious ruler went “by boat to England and spent the war in the quiet little town of Bath,” the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski reported in “The Emperor,” his brilliant book about Selassie. The leader’s complex feelings of gratitude, guilt and resentment led him, after his restoration, to have the partisans who saved Ethiopia from Italian subjugation quietly killed.

Maaza Mengiste’s first novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” opens in 1974 during the last days of Selassie’s six-decade rule. A young man lies on an operating table with a bullet in his back. A student protester, he is part of a popular tide that, along with a military uprising, will soon sweep Selassie from power. The attending physician wears a watch the emperor gave him upon his graduation from an English medical school. The doctor sees his patient — and his own younger son, who is also a revolutionary college student — as rash and foolish. His older son, a 32-year-old history professor with a small daughter and a wife, shares his father’s contempt for the burning and looting, the increasingly violent rallies. Read more – the New York Times

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