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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.
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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