Beneath the Lion’s Gaze Summary

Maaza Mengiste

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

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Beneath the Lion’s Gaze Summary

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Maaza Mengiste’s 2010 historical fiction novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze follows the political upheaval that overwhelmed Ethiopia in the 1970s. Addis Ababa is rocked and overwhelmed with increasingly violent protests regarding the Emperor’s tired views, which ultimately descends into absolute turmoil with the addition of a neo-Stalinist regime. Mengiste, who grew up in the midst of this chaotic time, offers us a graphic glimpse into this torn capital through the eyes of a tired family.

The novel opens with the father of the family, Hailu, operating on a young boy. He is removing a bullet from the back of this student who was shot by police for his protesting. Protests have erupted across the country for several reasons: a fast-growing famine in the northern province, rising unemployment, and increasing fuel prices.

During the surgery, he struggles with his own personal questions and morals. He imagines his son, Dawit, in the same position and tries to understand why any young boy should be on his operating table at all. Meanwhile, his wife Selam is in the same hospital’s ICU battling congestive heart failure and refusing treatment. It is immediately clear that there is a heavy weight on Hailu’s shoulders, but it will only grow larger.

Hailu is the father to two polar opposite sons. His oldest, Yonas, is 32 years old and married to a very sensitive woman named Sara. Together, they have a daughter named Tizita, who soon grows gravely ill and has a near-death experience that cripples the two of them.

Yonas avoids danger and death at all costs; he attempts to protect his wife from any further grief, as she’s already mourning the death of two unborn children and is recovering from Tizita’s death scare. Yonas is devoted to both his wife and his Christianity, doesn’t get involved in politics, and is conservative in both his beliefs and his actions. His younger brother Dawit calls him “obedient as a trained dog.” He is much like his father in that it is more comfortable and safe to fear the regime in silence than to fight it.

Dawit, however, is described by Yonas as “selfish and irresponsible.” Dawit is spoiled and has always been prone to temper tantrums and violent outbursts, so his father grows concerned as his best friend, Mickey, begins getting involved in the protests. Dawit’s journey to becoming a revolutionary is, as his brother states, a selfish one; he even jeopardizes his family’s safety by leaving a stack of anti-establishment pamphlets out in the open.

After Selam’s death, Hailu feels the burden of protecting both his sons and his country. The political unrest has only been heightened after the presumed murder of the Emperor, which Mengiste imagines was at the hands of a military official. Major Guddu, a fictional representation of Mengistu Haile Mariam, is one of the original men that arrested the Emperor. He organizes executions and arrests with the introduction of the Derg. The patients Hailu is treating aren’t just suffering from gunshot wounds, now; they’re clearly being beaten, tortured, and abused by the Derg.

In a graphic scene, the torture and execution of a young boy named Berhane is described in detail. It’s shocking imagery that appeals to the pathos of Mengiste’s audience, allowing them to truly understand the gravity of the situation in Ethiopia at this time.

The famine is growing worse and ration cards for grain are handed out. Gunfire and smoke are routine, and bodies on the street are far from rare. The Derg is no longer just going after city officials, but students, too. Trials aren’t guaranteed, but torture becomes expected as the number of arrests increase.

One day, Hailu is asked to treat a girl in a blood-soaked floral blouse. She has patches of hair missing and she’s wrapped in a plastic sheet. It’s evident that her injuries were inflicted by the Derg, and Hailu grapples with a moral dilemma that mirrors the one he faced with his wife. Does he treat this girl, or prevent her from facing further pain and misery? Hailu ultimately poisons the girl with cyanide out of mercy so she doesn’t have to face her tormentors again.

As a result, Hailu is arrested and brought to prison. Here, he sees and experiences the pain of those abused firsthand. During this decade of unrest, Dawit matures into a “man,” and becomes a resistance fighter called “Mekonnen Killer of Soldiers.” His best friend Mickey becomes increasingly flawed, as he is now a personal hit-man for Major Guddu. The ending is vague and incomplete, but for good reason; it suggests never-ending struggles for the family, even after the collapse of the Derg in 1991 and the horrors they’ve faced.