Book review by Alem Hailu
Shama Books 2013
Author Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam
‘Firebrands’ is an Ethiopian English Novel that was first published by Long Man Group LTD,1979 and reprinted by Shama Books in 2013. It is authored by the acclaimed Ethiopian author and translator Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam who produced several books in two local languages– Amharic & Guragigna– and English.
On top of his original works so far he has translated eight literary works, some of which are masterpieces. Playing an ambassadorial role in the literary scene, like Danachew Worku he had managed to get Ethiopian English Novels secure a place in the African writers series.
The era that witnessed the shaking of the emperor Haile Sellasie’s throne is the time setting of Firebrands. It was a period the wail of tenants sweltering under the yoke of feudalism reverberated across the nation and their conspicuous ill treatment became unbearable. It was also an era moral decadence such as corruption, lack of justice, backdoor dealings in government offices and ethnic based preferential treatments turned a stench in the nostrils of citizens in general and the revolutionary in particular. It is this theme as a mirror Firebrands reflects. Transporting readers back in a time train, Firebrands affords them the then socioeconomic and political picture as well as the challenge the myth of Solomonic-Dynasty and the lion of Judah faced.
Taking the liberty monument at the heart of Addis Ababa and the adjoining university as its axis, Firebrands’ setting starting from a shack surrounded high foundation villa around the palace , located at the heart of the city, extends to several service rooms and a big building housing vast compound at Entoto, a hilltop village at the northern part of the city.
The former was the house of a corrupt government official Ato Kebret who at the unfolding of the story was appointed to yet a higher government post as a gratitude to his unswerving loyalty to the regime. He was appointed a managing director with a rank of a minister. As opposed to the majority in the surrounding he was leading an affluent life. The vast compound at Entoto belonged to a famous known heroic patriot Dejazmach Azbete who was a reactionary bloodsucker feudal.
The liberty monument conjures in mind hero patriots who tooth and nail fought fascists to ensure the sovereignty of the country. Though made provincial officers for their heroic deed, most of the patriots like Dejazmach Azbete,60, governor general, were subjects of blame for unbridled passion of annexing lands by foul means, flogging and uprooting poor farmers. The provincial officials were acting as though the provinces under their jurisdiction were their personal abundances and its inhabitants subjects of serfdom.
Their lands expropriated by feudal lords like Dejazmach Azbete and alienated from their means of survival,peasants across the country were wallowing in abject poverty. Owing to this and other reasons the country was languishing under famine. To add an insult to injury, their exploitation notwithstanding, peasants were subject to brutal treatment. Nepotism,bribery, all the ugly faces of corruption as well as ethnic discrimination were pouring from every of which of the regime’s pore.
The university hosting students reminds one the then radicals, who revolted by the exploitation of peasants,improprieties in government offices and inequitable wealth distribution as well as inspired by the sweet aroma of change wafting through the country, were chanting revolutionary songs sat on the fence of the compound. “Awake,Awake,You had enough of oppressive rule.”
Resonating the need for change was shared by the majority subject to exploitation and injustice, gathering on the other side of the road in front of the university, their parents and city residents displeased by the regime that got one leg in the grave often echoed the students’ chants.
The police were keeping themselves busy hushing the students down and at times chasing those who proved unruly. The police seemed sat on the horns of a dilemma not yet sure to which side the tide of change would turn.
The shrewd and ambitious Kebret, by way of obeisance and ingratiating himself frequently used to pay visit to the palace to prudishly bow to the emperor when the emperor arrived for a Chilot, court procession. His ambition was going high up the administrative ladder of a government office. He owed a gratitude to his relative Dejazemach Azbete that often pulled strings to ensure Kebret’s appointment to a high post in emperor Haileselassie’s regime. .
Whenever Azbete, whose appetite for land proved unquenchable, sweet talked Kebret into buying lands,he acquired by foul means, Kebret would shy away guessing from the political atmosphere that soon through reform lands could be given to the tiller—the catch phrase of students and one of the slogans in their placards. As his wealth was based on land, whenever a land reform issue was raised Azebete acted as though pricked with a pin in the back.
The point of view the author adopted is a third person omniscient as the he by the facility of his pen vividly lets readers see and hear incidents and situations. The author skillfully lets readers give attention to the social malice and social injustice prevalent then.
At the expository stage bringing together the major characters at a congratulatory social gathering that unfolded at Ato Kebret’s Villa following his appointment, the author introduces them and their ambitions showing how they cross roads and at times get locked in a clash. Then using cause and effects and incidents he extends the plot in a chronological order. The friction between expropriators and the expropriated, the clash between the new and the old as well as the quest for justice and the perpetuation of injustice form the binary opposition that propels the story forward.
As per the Ethiopian culture of sharing good times together at such social gatherings and which custom dictates necessary to observe, forming different circles here and there at Kibret’s Villa, the aforementioned characters somewhat acquaint with each other.
The gathering brought together those who wish the longevity of the political system in place Dejazmach Azbete, Kibret and their family members; those who aspire for change Worku; those despite their noble linage who see things objectively Dr. Mandeferot; those who partake in corruption Kebret, the foreigner businessman Mr. Richardson, the police officer and W/ro Kassach (in words), the honest Bizuneh and the merchant Aba Bushra as well as the opportunists ready to make samursalt in taking sides the police and the security man. The characters the author created by careful sampling had well represented people of the period.
In the gathering seeing each other from afar and asking circle members about the background of attendees that proved strange to them all soon made out the identity people in the salon and veranda of the villa.
At the gathering it was with revulsion the reactionary Azbete was looking at Worku who with unkempt hair putting on a jacket was indifferently smoking cigarette— taken as a sign of being progressive. Later the two meet in a riot while Worku running away from a rod blandishing police and the Dejazmach trying to evade revolutionary students pelting his vehicles with stones.
Flipping back to the social gathering, Aba Bushera who came to the event empty handed soon noticed his rival Richardson had brought cartoons of champagne to worm his way into the heart’s of Kebret. Richardson was eyeing at having a bid in which Bushera was a competitor canceled.
When Work drew the attention of his circle members to an eavesdropping security man among the gathering the shock Dr Madefrot experienced hints on the lack of freedom of speech then. Also via the dressing-down Worku later in the story openly dealt a spy in the university compound, the author once more amplifies the measure the regime took to keep citizens tight lipped on political issues .
As a cultural setting the story kicks off with the argument of Bizuneh and Worku on downplaying or observing an outdated custom of congratulating an official who got promoted with a present like Whiskey.
The setting also includes the tearoom where the protagonist Bizuneh often after working hours met with his younger brother Worku and Worku’s friend Takori who were university students aspiring for the toppling of the regime.
It was in a modest house not far from the University Bizuneh and Worku were living with their parents. The brothers share a room . Takori sometimes used to visit them there. This house is also part of the setting.
Takori hailst from the minority ethnic group. He was studying law to fight the injustice his parents were suffering under the hands of Dejazmzch Azbete. He was a youngster who spoke his mind upfront and who believed non Amharas and citizens outside the domain of the orthodox religion to less preferential treatment during the emperor Hailesselasie Regime.
The author used Takori as a mouthpiece to the tribalism,ethnic discrimination and the expropriation of the land Takori’s ethnic group were suffering.
Often Bizuneh quietly attended their argument. Worku is a youngster who believed things must be changed overnight. As such he often got stunned when people fail to second him.
To the chagrin of Worku in the middle of their discussion Takori liked persistently bringing into light the ethnic discrimination suffered by non Amharas. They never came to terms pertaining to this issue. Regarding the issue Worku rather preferred to see things from the point of view of social justice focused on the economic and political system than harping on parochial sentiments.
When Takori said Amharas call non Amharas names Bizneh challenged him with the question “What do the non Amharas call the Amharas?”
The well built Bzuneh, whom his brother reverently call Gashe, was a soft spoken,genuine and humble person with the belief that things must be done right but if unfairly pushed to the extreme who would turn a bombshell.
As a strict internal auditor Bizuneh didn’t bat an eye in exposing embezzlers and corrupt employees in the corporation he joined as a new staff member soon after graduation. For baring the door for bribery he ended up quarreling with his boss Ato Kibret, who for the sake of getting his palms greased by foreigner business man Mr. Richardson canceled the bid not heeding Bizuneh’s concern the reputation of the corporation could be tarnished.
The wrangling between the protagonist Bizuneh and the antagonist Kibret that arose from this problem drives the plot to its climax. At this point Bizuneh taking the law into his own hands knocked down Ato kibret who firesdhim at the end of his probation period under the lame pretext of displeasing employees and creating industrial unrest. The emperors photo hanged on the wall with a frame crashed down by accident foreshadowing the the impending danger awaiting the lion of Judah.
As a falling action in the plot, brought to court Bizuneh litigates himself and lays bare the injustice that pushed him to take the law into his hands .Aba Bushra with white flown rob testified in favor of him. However to the displeasure of Kebret’ relatives for few years Bizneh was sent to prison.
Kibret who sufferd a banged head and a blurred vision got hospitalized. There it was his wont to mentally revenge Bizuneh that turned his earthly paradise into a hellhole. Sometimes when he thought of it was he the cause of Bizuneh’s punishment he regretted it .Occasionally he wished he had better paternally advised Bizuneh to mend his ways. Here the author like the contemporaries of Dostoevsky shows his talent of mentally probing into a human mind. When told about the punishment Bzuhneh meted out Kebret always felt an excruciating pain as though his wound was rubbed with salt. This shows kebret is a dynamic character.
The resolution is a happy ending for the protagonist Bizuneh detained for taking the law into his own hands was set free to mix with his family members following the popular revolution that was taking shape. Worku and Takori also evading possible attack by the police emerged safe out of the uprising to recount past happenings and developments.
However the expropriator Dejachezemache Azbete, was of the opinion that to claim land must be fairly distributed among citizens, “one has to share his salary( property) to others. “ He was killed waging a fight against revolutionaries on the move to fairly distribute land. His stance not to flinch an inch shows he is a flat character.
W/ro Kassech up on hearing the proclamation the promulgates the confiscation of land died right away from a heart attack. Kebret who took to the bush tagging Azbete also got killed . Following the death of her husband his wife cleared off the country along their daughter and puppy.
Though with a noble linage Dr. Mandeferot had little to do with the old generation of the gentry. Objectively seeing the historic event that removed the emperor from power he came up with his own observation. As a trend he noted new forces of oppression boycott revolutions that throw away the old system of oppression. The new elements of oppression, donning a new garment, introduce a new form of censorship that stifles the quest of the new liberation elements and a similar question of remnants of the old system for justice. Hence this way revolution remains yet to come. He wrapped up his observation with the conclusion unless the liberating element in a man dominates the oppressing one social justice will not prevail. Here the political analysis the author carries across via Dr. Mandeferot also deserves appreciation.
It is in honor of those who fueled the revolution or genuinely sacrificed their life to give life to others the book Firebrands derived its name. In firebrands one notices the tell and show as well as the dialogue and the narration are mixed in a reasonable proportion. This coupled with the savory figurative speech makes Firebrands a page turner.
Literature is undoubtedly the best way of teaching language. Firebrands is fluent and a clean sheet. Students could benefit a lot from the opportunity the book avails to them. The indigenous adages like “He who doesn’t enrich himself while in office regrets it when removed from office.,“ the author adorned the book with renders it palatable lending it a sense of local touch. It significance as a literary text is out of question.
This book that shows the inequitable and unfair national wealth distribution and social malice that permeated the political system stands tall in the eyes of Marxist critics too. Exposing improprieties is also the objective of Marxist critical approach. The book has effectively done this.
To see examples, the wife of the police officer who once let go Kibret scot free ignoring his transgression had become Kibret’s secretary. As a favor Kebret had hired the officer’s wife in his organization. Dejachmache Azbetes wife W/ro Kassech also asks Kebret to hire her America learnt daughter Chucu at his corporation. It was taking bribe from Worku and Takori the prison guard allowed Worku visit Bizuneh,while he was in prison before appearing before court. Via this technique the author portrays nepotism and corruption that were rife during the reign of the emperor.
The gentry’s scorn for labor was also discernible from W/ro Kassech’s speech. Kassech at the social gathering was advising Kebret’s wife to encourage her husband to involve in corruption. Dr Mandeferot was also heard complaining Kebret’s secretary being bureaucrat by way of portraying the bureaucratic red-tape prevalent then .
Also Kebret and Worku’s father never advised his wife in financial matters. This showed the invisible oppression women were subject to. The verbal abuse Kassach servant suffered from her mistress also throws light on the double fold discrimination women from the lower class were subjected to. From the Feminist Critical approach such exposure of the lot of women wins credit to the author.