The Second World War looms large in the popular imagination, and the literature of the victory over Fascism has its own extensive, triumphant body of work. And yet Africa’s role in World War II and its buildup, which requires greater nuance, has been largely ignored by the history books. Two novels by leading African writers—The Shadow King, by Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste, and When the Plums Are Ripe, by Cameroonian-American Patrice Nganang—help fill this void, capturing lesser-known episodes of this period with poignant intimacy.
The Shadow King is Mengiste’s much-anticipated follow-up to her acclaimed 2010 debut, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, which focused on one family’s dissolution in the wake of the 1974 revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. Her new work provides a broader portrait of Ethiopia (it covers the years from 1935 to 1941, bookended by events in 1974) and is also more personal. “The first stories I heard of the war between fascist Italy and Ethiopia came from my grandfather,” she writes of the book’s inspiration. “It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the story of my great-grandmother.” Her great-grandmother, it turns out, sued in court to obtain her father’s gun and then joined the war against Mussolini’s invading forces in 1935. “She represents one of the many gaps in European and African history,” Mengiste adds.
Africa’s role in World War II has been largely ignored.
Mengiste’s novel revolves around Hirut, an orphaned servant girl who also joins the struggle against Italian Fascism. But Hirut’s transformation into a heroic “new image of Mother Ethiopia” is a complicated one—she must first fight off the violent abuses of her employers, Kidane and his wife, Aster, who both become legendary guerrilla leaders.
Mengiste explores Hirut’s inner dilemmas to powerful effect—aided by a chorus of female voices—but is also intent on reimagining aspects of this neglected precursor to World War II. Frequently, she pauses to consider the Italian war propaganda around her, especially the work of Jewish photographer Ettore Navarra (who fears for his own life if he returns to Italy). Hirut’s experiences, however, refute the narrative of Italian dominance, and she believes that Ethiopia will prevail: “This is the way it has been written, so this is the way it has been remembered,” she thinks. “But what Hirut knows … is that one hundred thousand men, however ravenous they might be for this beautiful land, can never total the numbers of Ethiopians intent on keeping their country free, regardless of mathematics.”
“This is the way it has been written, so this is the way it has been remembered,” writes Mengiste.
Patrice Nganang’s When the Plums Are Ripe, meanwhile, represents the second book in a projected trilogy of Cameroonian history, stretching from the country’s early-20th-century colonization by Germany and France (depicted in 2017’s extraordinary Mount Pleasant) through World War II and towards independence. The book’s narrator, like Nganang, has big ambitions, aiming to rescue the stories of Cameroonian foot soldiers from oblivion. Stirringly, he sings the praises of his forgotten countrymen who fought with the Allies in the Sahara: “A huge hole in the heart of the continent, its gusts of sand would have blown away the chronicle of their acts if it weren’t for me—me, the narrator of their glory, the writer of their tale, the poet of their bliss.”
In fact, Nganang’s narrator—an anonymous Cameroonian—manages to bring to life a thrilling cast of characters, following them from their ties in the village of Edéa in 1939 through the fall of Vichy rule in Yaoundé, the capital, in 1940, and the desert campaigns of 1941 and 1942. Like Hirut, Nganang’s characters will harbor divisions—between their allegiance to Free France and their desire for liberation from colonial rule. Pouka, a French-educated civil servant and aspiring poet, will bemoan these contradictions: “The paradox of our relationship with France is that she is at once our oppressor and our ideal. How can we get out of this trap?”
When the Plums Are Ripe is told in swift-moving episodes, veering between bawdy irreverence and righteous indignation. We encounter the rank-and-file denizens of Yaoundé’s more colorful neighborhoods and brothels, witness Cameroonian recruits used as “cannon fodder” at the front, eavesdrop on the first murmurs of the movement for independence. And, through it all, our mouth waters at the descriptions of Yaoundé’s season of succulent plums, as evocative for the narrator as Proust’s madeleines: “Ah, the very short season always reminds me of the time when our country discovered, if not the crux of its own violence, then that of the world; when it sent off along the road through the desert its many sons … just like the fruitsellers toss away each evening the plums they haven’t been able to grill.”
Anderson Tepper is a co-chair of the International Committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival