The Shadow King

Thank you KK

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This has been one of the most challenging books I have ever read – the subject matter is war – and normally I avoid this, because I want to relax, be entertained, and enjoy myself.  This is quite hard to do when confronted with the horrors and passions and enormities of war.  And yet this book received five stars from me.  I had to t read it because it was a Christmas present and obviously bought for me to enjoy.

So, I started it and almost immediately I was hooked.  It is about the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s forces during the second world war. Haile Selassie has retreated to England, to the grand and royal regency city of Bath, where he lives as a refugee with his family, feeling guilty that he has abandoned his empire. The Ethiopians have only very primitive equipment with which to fight against Mussolini’s army, whereas the Italians have arrogance, wanton cruelty, and force in their favour. Yet this is not a narrative of war. In fact, at first, I thought it was going to turn out to be a love story.  How wrong I was. The two main protagonists – Ettore Navarro, Italian soldier, photographer, and Jew (this turns out to be very important) and Hirut – Ethiopian peasant, woman, and soldier. are introduced to us at the beginning of the book. We think there must have been something between them. There was.  It was not romantic. We meet them at the end of the book when their differences are resolved if not entirely forgiven. Their enslavement to each other was emotional and passionate, powerful but not pleasant.

Hirut, uneducated peasant woman that she is, has learnt enough about war, and men, to know that nothing positive can come out of their actions without the support of the womenfolk. She is violated, humiliated, but never diminished.  It is she who realises that the Ethiopians cannot win the war against the Italians if they cannot see their leader. She notices that one of the soldiers has similar physical features to Haile Selassie.   She persuades him and the local commanders that he should become the Emperor, the Shadow King of the title. It is agreed and the young man learns to walk, talk, sit and ride like the refugee Emperor. He will be shown to the Ethiopians at strategic points. Hirut then insists that she and the other women should become real arm bearing soldiers too. They know their value on the battlefield, not just as nurses, cooks, and body carriers. They guard the new emperor; they make plans and strategies.

Even when caught by the Italians they never stop being soldiers, thus winning the reluctant respect of some of the Italians. Ettore the photographer is also enslaved by his camera. His job is to take photos of all the atrocities that the Italians inflict upon the Ethiopians, including the imprisonment of Hirut.

There is a lot more to the story than this. It was hard going at times because some of the horrors are in fact very graphically described. Yet the dignity of the Ethiopians, the degradation and corruption of the Italians and the relationships between the generations and the sexes on both sides are described with subtlety, and at times, with such a powerful lyricism that you have to read bits over and over again to get their full meaning.

This is a novel, leaning toward legend and even myth.  I learnt a lot of actual history too, and it made me want to learn more about an area I know very little about. Very highly recommended.

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