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In Ethiopia, A Monarch Falls In 'The Lion's Gaze'

Beneath The Lion's Gaze is Maaza Mengiste's first novel. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and now lives in New York.

A 3,000-year-old monarchy is said to have ended in 1975 with a pillow to the face. Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, was thought to be a descendant of King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba. It is widely believed that after 40 years on the throne, Selassie was murdered in his bed by revolutionaries — too impatient to wait for an old man to die in peace.

Those last days of the monarchy and the brutal beginnings of the Derg, the socialist military junta that replaced it, provide the backdrop of Maaza Mengiste's first novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze. Mengiste tells the story of a family and a nation, at war with itself.

Mengiste was born in Ethiopia, during the early days of the revolution, she tells NPR's Gwen Thompkins. The novel takes place in her home city of Addis Ababa. Although she left when she was young, Mengiste still had family and returned on a regular basis, particularly when she was writing her book.

Beneath The Lion's Gaze
By Maaza Mengiste
Hardcover, 305 pages
W. W. Norton & Company
List price: $ 16.47
Read An Excerpt

Mengiste recalls that when emperor Halie Selassie died in August 1975, the day after he died, the Derg — the regime that took over — announced that he had died of natural causes from surgery.

"But everyone knew that wasn't the case," Mengiste says. Still, it wasn't until the fall of the Derg in the early 1990s that it became widely believed that he was either smothered or strangled. She tried to use this historical background to imagine the emperor's last moments:

"I was trying to imagine not just this man — this emperor, that could trace his lineage back 3,000 years to King Soloman — but I was trying to think what it would feel like to be an 82-, 83-year-old man and suddenly isolated from everyone that you know ... quite possibly facing the last days of your life."

Mengiste also addresses Selassie's effects on the Ethiopians who lived under his rule. The emperor was known as a man who awarded some and neglected many. Mengiste focuses particularly on a famine that helped to usher in the end of Selassie's days.

"As I was researching," she said, "I was trying to answer my own questions, about how could the famine get this bad." As the characters in the novel conclude: "Help did come, but it didn't happen fast enough."

The famine in Ethiopia was a catalyzing factor that propelled action against the throne.

"The famine really was the thing that just broke the flood gates of unrest," Mengiste says. "There was already protest going on, there were demonstrations. The army was upset with poor pay and living conditions. People wanted reform. There were deep, deep class divisions and ethnic conflict, and then, everybody started hearing about this famine and how bad it was — and that was it."

The military coup that brought the monarchy down was led by the group that called itself "The Derg," led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who does not figure in the novel by name.

"I had to make a decision in this book," Mengiste explains, "as to when I would stick to historical fact, or historical names, and when I would begin to use fictional accounts and fictional names. With the emperor, because he was a legend, and such a myth in many ways, I was able to work with him as a fiction writer."

The Derg leader, on the other hand, was "very, very real, very immediate." Mengiste says she "wanted this book to be about the victims of the Derg, not exactly [about] the perpetrators of this violence. I wanted to focus on those who suffered."

It has been estimated that hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives during the 15 years the Derg was in power — but its leader, Mengistu, is still alive, living in Zimbabwe. Mengiste says her decision not to use his name in her book was not meant to "protect the guilty."

"For me, it wasn't about sparing him," Mengiste explains. "It was about exposing the humanity and the devastation of those people who suffered under his rule."

She says if she had included Mengistu in the book, he would have "overshadowed" the stories of his victims. She hopes that telling their stories will cause readers to question why he remains free and unpunished.

"I am hoping that if we can understand the humanity of those who suffered through this, that we start to investigate beyond the pages of this book," she says.

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Transcript

GWEN THOMPKINS, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Gwen Thompkins. In 1975, a 3,000-year-old monarchy reportedly ended with a pillow to the face. Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, was said to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. After 40 years on the throne, he's widely believed to have been murdered in his bed by revolutionaries too impatient to wait for an old man to die in peace.

Those last days of the monarchy and the brutal beginnings of the socialist military junta that replaced it provide the backdrop of Maaza Mengiste's first novel. "Beneath the Lion's Gaze" tells the story of a family and a nation at war with itself.

Maaza Mengiste joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.

Ms.�MAAZA MENGISTE (Author, "Beneath the Lion's Gaze"): Hello, how are you?

THOMPKINS: Oh, I'm fine. Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms.�MENGISTE: Oh, it's great to be here.

THOMPKINS: So, may I ask you: How much time have you spent in Ethiopia? Were you both there?

Ms.�MENGISTE: I was born in Ethiopia in Addis Ababa during the early days of the revolution, and I left when I was quite young, but I still had family in Ethiopia. So I went back on a regular basis. And as I was writing this book, I went back also and did some research.

THOMPKINS: And in your novel, which actually tells the story of a family's evolution during this time, you also provide some detail into the emperor's final moments. The emperor's death is widely believed to have been murder, although the military revolutionaries, the Derg, claim that he had died of natural causes. In your story, you describe his death with some detail. How did you come to that image of Haile Selassie at the end of his life?

Ms.�MENGISTE: When Emperor Haile Selassie died in August of 1975, the day after he died, the Derg had put announcement out on the radio saying that he had died from natural causes from surgery. And everyone knew that wasn't the case, and it wasn't until the Derg fell, the regime fell in '91, '92, that stories started coming out and it became widely believed that he was actually either smothered or strangled.

And so I worked with that when I was imagining the last days of his life in my book. I was trying to imagine not just this emperor that could trace his lineage back 3,000 years to King Solomon, but I was trying to think of what it might feel like to be an 82, 83-year-old man and suddenly isolated from everyone that you know, and you're quite possibly facing the last days of your life.

THOMPKINS: You also depict his rule in a wider context in terms of its effect on Ethiopians. As the characters in your novel discover for themselves, you know, this was an emperor who rewarded some of his people but neglected most of them.

Ms.�MENGISTE: Yes, you know, and as I was researching, I was trying to answer my own questions about how could the famine get this bad without a lot of help from the government? And one of my characters, who is working in the famine-stricken areas, and one of my other characters, Mickey(ph) is talking to him, says the emperor did come, but it was too late. Help did come, but, you know, it didn't happen fast enough.

THOMPKINS: So we should say that in the end, the exposure of a famine in Ethiopia seemed to be the catalyzing factor that propelled action against the throne.

Ms.�MENGISTE: Yes. The famine really was the thing that just broke the flood gates of unrest. There was already protest going on, there were demonstrations. You know, the army was upset with low pay and poor living conditions. People wanted reform and there were deep, deep class divisions and ethnic conflict. And then everybody started hearing about this famine and how bad it was and that was it at that point.

THOMPKINS: Let's talk about this military coup that brought the monarchy down. Now this is a group that called itself The Derg. The Derg was led by a man by the name of - sorry, you go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms.�MENGISTE: It's okay. Mengistu Haile Mariam.

THOMPKINS: Right, who does not figure in the novel by name.

Ms.�MENGISTE: No.

THOMPKINS: I wondered about that. Why is that so?

Ms.�MENGISTE: You know, I had to make a decision in this book as to when I would stick to historical fact, or historical names and when I would begin to use fictional accounts and fictional names. With the emperor, because he was such a legend and such a myth in many ways, I was able to work with him as a fiction writer. I was able to imagine certain things that people may not know.

With Mengistu, he was very, very real, very immediate. And for me to try to step into his shoes and imagine him, I think I would have to make some sacrifices in terms of the story I told. I wanted this book to be about the victims of the Derg, not exactly the perpetrators of this violence. I wanted to focus on those who suffered.

THOMPKINS: But, you know, there are some estimates that say that, you know, hundreds of thousands of people perished under the Dergs.

Ms. MENGISTE: Yes.

THOMPKINS: You know, was it 15 years or so that the Derg was in power? About that?

Ms. MENGISTE: Yes.

THOMPKINS: And so by not naming Mengistu, do you feel as if perhaps you're protecting the guilty? I mean, this guy's alive.

Ms. MENGISTE: He's alive.

THOMPKINS: He's in Zimbabwe, as we speak.

Ms. MENGISTE: Yes.

THOMPKINS: Unless he's taken a vacation somewhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: Why spare him? Why protect the guilty?

Ms. MENGISTE: It wasn't for me about sparing him. I think it was about exposing the humanity and the devastation of those people that suffered under his rule. If I put Mengistu in this book, he would have overshadowed the stories of everybody else.

You know, it's funny because I thought about him, about protecting him and I don't think I am. Because anybody who reads this book will probably wonder, "I wonder who this man is." And in the back of my book I do name him. I'm hoping that if we can understand the humanity of those who suffered through this, that we start to investigate beyond the pages of this book, and start to wonder why isn't he in Ethiopia? Why hasn't his life sentence and then death penalty? Why haven't those things happened?

THOMPKINS: Maaza Mengiste wrote "Beneath the Lion's Gaze." She joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so very much.

Ms. MENGISTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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