On 3 October 1935, 200,000 soldiers of the Italian army, commanded by Colonel Carlo Fucelli, crossed the Mareb River dividing Ethiopia from the Italian colony of Eritrea without a prior declaration of war. Three hundred kilometres away, an Ethiopian soldier named Kidane began to prepare his men for battle, but within a year Emperor Haile Selassie, anticipating his demise, had fled to Bath in England. The news spread across Ethiopia – only for the emperor to stage a remarkable return, flanked by two female bodyguards and backed by an army of women.
This is not a summary of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War but the rough plot of Maaza Mengiste’s second, now Booker-shortlisted novel, The Shadow King. It is true that the Italians crossed the Mareb on 3 October, but their commander was one Marshal Emilio De Bono. And the emperor did in fact flee to England, departing his homeland on a train to Djibouti with Mussolini’s tacit agreement. His return did not come for another five years, in 1941, following the Italian defeat by the British.
The dissonance between these two narratives is the product of another departure of sorts. In her afterword, Mengiste writes, ‘The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle.’ The Shadow