From Ethiopian-born memoirist Nega (Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, 2000): a first novel about star-crossed lovers that’s also a tart fictional history of Ethiopia in the twilight years of its ancient feudal kingdom, soon to be coveted by Europeans.
Mezlekia’s tale of forbidden love in unsettled times is replete with the retelling of old legends and acts of magical realism. Spirits appear in whirls of dust, creatures like the Abettors decide wars, and magical potions revive the dying. The tone, though, is often ironic and the observations contemporary as Nega describes germ warfare and weapons similar to missiles, as well as a fanatical priest bent on rooting out heresy. Luminously evoking a country where drought is endemic, the landscape austere, and food in short supply, the narrator, a warrior, Teferi—“the feared one”—relates the consequences of the birth of Aster, a daughter, to Count Ashenafi. Aster is an exceptional child who is tutored by the kingdom’s best scholars and guarded jealously by her protective father, but in her teens, even so, she falls in love with court comedian and jester, the clever slave, young Gudu. The two start writing a book, but their relationship is discovered and Gudu must leave the court. This love story is played out against a background of battles and ruthless regimes as the fanatical priest Reverend Yimam starts an inquisition to root out heresy in the court. While Aster dreams of escaping to join Gudu, he himself joins a band of rebels intent on defeating Yimam. The entire country is soon a battlefield as cities are besieged and sacked, and treachery is everywhere as fighters change sides and Gudu is taken prisoner—and tortured. When her father tries to stop Aster from going to Gudu’s aid, she finds a way out that even he is powerless to prevent.
Rich in local color and history, yet never quite reaches an affecting emotional pitch.