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Vanishing Virgil…


“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author” – G.K. Chesterton (Heretics, 1905).

Attempting to cash-in on the current vogue for black female action heroes, Maaza Mengiste’s novel ‘The Shadow King’ (2020) tells of the brave women warriors of Ethiopia who fought against Mussolini’s Fascist invasion of 1935.

Mengiste uses Homeric epigraphs and a “chorus” in the tradition of Aeschylus in order to inject some gravitas to her tale about an orphaned servant girl named Hirut, who takes her lost father’s rifle down from the wall, in order to do battle in defence of Emperor Haile Selassie’s golden throne.

But this action-packed text, that comes with the recommendation of no less an authority than Salman Rusdie of ‘The Satanic Verses’ fame, is in fact little more than a puerile and pretentious anti-white diatribe masquerading as a modern classic, with its ever virtuous flossy haired ethnics beating the rather pathetically portrayed Italian army at every turn in a wish-fulfilling re-write of real events.

Mengiste’s writing style, billed as “lyrical” is, in fact, portentous and over-wrought. There are lots of fight scenes but the author really should learn how to describe such encounters before she aspires to depict them. She would be well advised to read something by Bernard Cornwell. Indeed, read anything that borders on literature and comprehend and understand it. For it is clear that this affirmative action author fails on nearly every level. Firstly, she cannot write, and overuses the present tense for the duration of the novel’s over-blown 448 pages. An example of this being:

“Aster says, Kidane. And it is not the utterance but the voice: angry and plaintive, troubled and insistent, made hoarse by overuse. It winds through the hallway and soaks into the room. It seeps through wood and flings itself at glass. It strips meaning from sound and leaves only a weight that hovers just above their heads, buckled by sorrow.”

Secondly, her chosen theme and characters are trite and shallow. The good guys are of course Black. The bad guys come in the shape of Colonel Fucelli; a pasta presentation of the Azzurri.

Thirdly, the hype is a clear case of the publisher trying to make a princess out of a bullfrog. Whoever at the Canongate offices approved the work for publication obviously had one eye on the fact that Mengiste is affiliated with groups that push immigrant children’s rights and serves on the Board of Directors for Words without Borders. It’s somebody who took the passing of Toni Morrison, the author of Beloved (1987) very badly indeed. A loss, needless to say, I do not share.

For the praise and recognition they receive is out of all proportion to their talent and the critics deliberately deceive the gullible who have been trained and dumbed down to such an extent that they accept such fiction has fact and such wordplay as poetry, when neither could be further from the truth.

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