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The Ethiopian Volcano: Ambiguity
and Meaning, in Daniachew's
The Thirteenth Sun
Robert M. Wren
University of Houston
The society of which Daniachew Worku1 writes in The Thirteenth Sun2 is that of the Amhara, a people whose language is not only wholly unrelated to English but has a unique tradition of rich verbal complexity, in speech as well as poetry. In using English as a vehicle to present to the world a sense of the people in the novel, Daniachew uses forms and devices to convey meaning which are unfamiliar and achieve unfamiliar effects. The general problem of cultural difference, intensified; by the author's particular objectives, may for some readers obscure the great virtues, interest and pleasure of in The Thirteenth Sun. It is to clarify, not to simplify, the interrelated meanings of the novel that this essay is written.
In story outline, The Thirteenth Sun is extremely simple. Goytom, the son of the aged Fitawrary Woldu3 accompanies his father on a pilgrimage to Zekwala monastery where the old man hopes to be cured of his illness. The trip is not a success, and Goytom takes the corpse away for burial. The action, from arrival until the old man's death, takes less than two days, and the locale, save for arrival and departure, is the immediate vicinity of the monastery. The pattern is complicated, however, by additional characters as well as by the nature of the place and the circumstances of the time. It will be best to take these in reverse order, dealing first with the place and time.
Zekwala is an inactive volcano eight or ten miles distant from Bishoftu4 off the Addis Ababa highway; access by path and track is difficult, and the mountain itself is both high and steep. Zekwala is sacred to Abbo, the most revered of the Ethiopian saints,5 and Abbo's holy water, the crater lake, is said to have the saint's power of healing. The time of year is close to the Ethiopian New Year, which falls (presently) early in September, before the ending of the heavy rains frequently mentioned in the novel. The year is recent; the author visited Zekwala several times in the early stages of writing.6
This setting may be said to have meaning in itself. That it is naturalistic, there can be no doubt, but one should resist the temptation to see accuracy of observation as precluding further meaning. The Amharic mode involves "the studied use of ambiguity,"7 and the analogy between imperial, theocratic Ethiopia and a sacred volcano is too obvious to be fortuitous. This suggests that the narrative may well have as its subject matter not characters on a mountain, but Ethiopia and her people as Daniachew sees them and their situation (which at the present writing can in no way be said to have been resolved, whatever formal changes have occurred). An examination of the characters supports this suggestion.
Goytom, through whose consciousness most of the novel is experienced, is passionately, if ineffectually, concerned about Ethiopia. The novel's opening segment is not unusual in devoting about half the lines to narrative and conversation, and half to description--the country as seen through Goytom's mind is among the splendors of the novel.
Ambiguous splendors, of course.
Beautiful Ethiopia--with her flat valleys of deep brown or black soil. With her hills sloping gently upwards and covered with barley. And then dropping for some thousand feet and covered with terrace upon terrace of teff 8, wheat, sorghum, and peas. With her delicious sheep who feed on wild thyme and mint. (pp. 41-42)
This swiftly gives way to
Beautiful Ethiopia: with all men of title...doing their best to alleviate the suffering in the hamlets. Begging manna from Heaven. Sending DDT...And hunger, ignorance, and disease bestowing their bounty all over the country. God's way of putting an end to things. (p. 42)
But Goytom is a failed idealist who sees his own limitations sometimes too clearly.
And I'm supposed to save Ethiopia. ..Save her from whom? From myself, I guess? By prayers of mourning; by indolence and strong drink; by the pleasures of the body; by submission and humbleness, and by ignorance... Yes, I'm going to save Ethiopia. (p. 113. Ellipsis periods as in original. )
He is the young Educated Ethiopian. He has learned the ideals of (in the best sense) socialized Europe, and he is already sure that he cannot realize those ideals in his father's Ethiopia--and probably not in his own.
But who is going to listen or understand? Talk about, the social situation in your country, you are thrown is out of school; talk out your miserable working conditions and you are fired from your jobs; speak up about certain injustices in the government, and you land in gaol; talk at all, and you are left without even your friends. Why, I haven't even succeeded in making my own father understand me. (p. 113)
His father is the obvious contrast to Goytom. Goytom maintains an anxious deference toward him that might be--but is not--caused by his desire to inherit his father's estate. (He will get his mother's estate in any case. ) But the relationship between the Fitawrary and his son had best be investigated later, after examination of the rest of the character-complex; it is the linch-pin that holds the rest together. If that is not seen clearly, the novel will seem to lack coherence.
Accompanying the father and son is the girl Woynitu, the Fitawrary's daughter only on the word of her prostitute mother. Between her and Goytom there develops and then fades an attraction, ambiguously incestuous: they know neither each other nor, for certain, their relationship. For her Goytom' s deferential appeal is gradually overshadowed by the raw attractiveness of a peasant. The Fitawrary comes eventually to accept her as his daughter in fact and even affection, removing from his neck a gold cross (smeared with sheep's entrails) to give her, along with a kiss (p. 64). A little later she is raped by the peasant.
Woynitu is Goytom's female counterpart. In her, The Young Ethiopian Woman sees her future wholly as she is manipulated or used. Her dream at the start of the novel is being an Ethiopian Air Lines hostess, saved in an accident by Goytom. Her reality is mere acknowledgement as the Fitawrary's daughter. The virginity she had long refused to sell is taken carelessly, almost indifferently.
This family group is complemented by a second, and opposite one: the Peasant--never otherwise identified by name--and his wife, generally called "the Conjure Woman. " By circumstance poles apart, the Peasant and the Fitawrary are psychologically very similar: vital, appetitive, selfish, egocentric. But the Fitawrary--"The ladies' man of his time" (p. 2)--is old and dying, guilt ridden, religious, while the Peasant's mature vigor and lusts are at their peak. The contrast is well shown in the koso water (for worms) that causes the old man in his weakness to vomit and excrete simultaneously, as opposed to the sacrificial spayed sheep which the Peasant, in his half-acknowledged role as devil, eats raw. Another contrast is their work. In a kind soliloquy that accompanies his eating of the sheep, the Peasant praises himself, "a working man" who makes his own plough and tenderly cares for his oxen. He makes the iron hoes, he sows, he clears the ditches, weeds the grain, cuts, cocks, and stacks the crops, threshes and winnows--and even builds the wicker and clay-plastered granaries, to leave his wife free for her conjure work, if need be (pp. 65-67). He doesn't care: "I am also a conjure-ploughman. "
The Fitawrary, on the other hand, confesses that when he was grain dealer, he gave dishonest measure,
"And if I were drawing up contracts, O, how clever I was, be it for the lease of my land or some other purpose, I always found a way to insert forfeit clauses… taking advantage of my client's illiteracy.(p49)
And now he is rich, collecting rents on his houses, one of the sources his wealth being lands given him by the Emperor (pp. 64, 161). He is in short, parasitic; the Peasant, productive. The differing morality their economic life sets them apart as distinctly as their class.
The Peasant's wife, the Conjure Woman, and his neighbour, the Priest, are different sorts of parasites, symbolic of the combined power of superstition and religion. The Priest is a shadowy figure, but the Woman is fully realized as a character, sensual, attractive with full faith in herself and her powers, faith in both the devils whom she commands and deceives and in the sacraments of the church-which ultimately, she turns to (p. 167). Her cures never fail--any animal or man she treats who dies was simply not brought to her soon enough. To her illness is a form of possession--possession by the "unnameables"9 who can be tempted away by a, delicious chicken, or, when they seem greedier, the spayed sheep which, on the demon's behalf, the Conjure Plowman husband eats before raping Woynitu. No line exists between her sorcery and the priest's Christianity, for she chews qat to create the hallucinations which verify to her (and to all) her powers, and speaks in a language which must be interpreted by the priest, whose participation is essential, though passive (p. 127). When she suffers her ultimate failure--both her husband and the Fitawrary dead--she asks in anguish!
Were they all in vain--the fastings, the incense burning, the offering of sacrifices, the exorcising of demons in the name of God--why should this be my reward? (p.167)
There is no irony in her failure to recognize that she has victimized her clients; It is rather the Fitawrary who is set apart from her by his consciousness of sin.
Two other naively corrupt women from the Fitawrary's own class are the Peasant's Landlady and another, called simply the "Little Lady. " The Landlady is an enormous woman, an aristocrat of the sort beautifully satirized at length by Menghistu Lemma in his play The Marriage of Unequals (London: Macmillan, 1970). Their corruption and their innocence of it are nicely portrayed in a bit of conversation. The Landlady, the widow of a government minister, speaks first:
"They witnessed against him saying that they had seen my friend shoot five bullets into the stomach of the deceased. "
"And it was all a lie?"
"You don't think it was true, do you ? "
"I've heard so many versions of the incident I don't know which one to believe any longer."
"Three of them are now serving time for two years."
"For falsifying the truth?"
"That's right. And two of them ran to the countryside and are being hunted still."
"But tell me truly, is it not a fact that your friend killed the man?"
"He might have killed him, but not with five bullets." (p. 125)
The remaining characters include a perhaps hallucinatory maiden whose gentle charms ought to appeal to Goytom more than they do, the district chief who appears twice briefly as a symbol of negligent power and authority, plus assorted pilgrims and beggars. Only two others need attention here because of their obvious ambiguity, a farenj10 magician and the chief Preacher of the Monastery.
The farenj is the only non-Ethiopian in the novel. Because the presence of a white man who is also a magician with real powers at Abbo' s monastery is beyond credulity, he must be taken as a symbolic figure. Yet what he symbolizes is not immediately clear. The object of his magic--during the one paragraph in which he appears--is the Peasant, who has been circulating among the pilgrims promoting his wife's witchcraft as well as his own knowledge and powers. The farenj, "through an interpreter", tells of his craft, then pinions two of his students, by magic, to a tree. Next he casts the Peasant down a cliff and brings him back--whereupon the Peasant attacks him, only to find himself fallen among the bushes. As the magician continues his show, bending copper coins with his fingers,
An airplane passed very low, its noise reverberating near and far. Then the noise faded and the airplane disappeared.
In the land of thirteen months of sunshine.11
The association of the farenj and the airplane does not seem to be accidental, and suggests that the magic which can control the Peasant against his will is associated with European technology and--as will be suggested below--education as well.
Like the farenj, the Preacher has a subsection of the novel devoted to his principal action; its title is The Revelation, fall climactically after noon of the second day, as the Fitawrary's death approaches. The context of the action is the return of the procession from the blessing of the water of the lake; midway, the priest bearing (the canopy of the ark) is unable to continue, and the Preacher "no ordinary mortal" (p. 142) -"overcome by the Spirit of God'.:, preaches.
Though the area is full of pilgrims, the only other character of importance is the Conjure Woman, who, listening and watching, recognises the Preacher as the incarnation of Jesus; in a waking dream-- stimulated by the.semi-erotic behaviour of mules toward a black mare--, She butters and picks his plaited hair, combs it, and sings to him. He preaches through her day dream, while chanters almost drown out his voice. Then she wakes, and as he points to the stopped tabot warning of damnation, he seems to notice her for the first time, and thereafter it seems to her that he looks at her again and again. She plays with her; pink kerchief, now on her hair, now on her neck, and he says, God
"... knows that there are weeds in us. Wasn't that, why Christ was sent into the world: to separate us '.' from what chokes us in its midst and make us His own; gently to pullout the weeds that trouble us, that choke us and kill our beauty, with his delicate and loving hand ? Oh yes, we are God's garden if only we would allow Christ to be woven into the fabric of our person. "
These words, the reader is immediately told, "were meant to be mysterious and of multiple meanings" (p. 152). Staring at her, he says, "You are the chosen delicate tree" under whose "shadow" he has the desire "to rest." Suddenly it is revealed to her that she is ready for penance and to "regain her oneness with Christ"--whom, looking at a picture that a young deacon is carrying, she sees before her as the Preacher. Twice she touches his foot before he, with a cry as if he had lost hope, breaks off and runs to the church and the tabot once more begins to move.
The section is a kind of religio-erotic tone poem, with the sermon, the chanting, and the Conjure Woman interacting among one another, ambiguously (as in Amharic reality) defining a part of the religious experience which is dominant in Ethiopian life. This ambiguity is not finished with the section, however. This Preacher, "no ordinary mortal"--perhaps "a devil's son born of a woman" (p. 142)--is not an ecclesiastic at all, if the "Landlady, " the huge minister's widow, is to be believed. She tells the Little Lady,
"He was a Captain in His Majesty's secret service branch. He was discharged from his service dishonourably for what he had said and done during the last coup d'etat... And at the end of this year , perhaps, he may again be returned to his job.(p. 159)
Thus the religio-erotic preacher becomes a participant in the abortive 1960 coup, exiled, transformed, and prepared to return to his work in, domestic espionage, part of the structure of political repression which --like the church--maintains the poverty and corruption, and the beauty, portrayed in the novel. Daniachew's Amharic ambiguity is at its most extreme.
Yet when this ambiguity is examined more closely, it becomes a rich semi-naturalistic comment on a complex of actual events. The 1960 coup was dominated by the Moja family12 which owned extensive Zekwala lands; indeed, the escaping plotters fled to the volcano where, in spite of help and warnings from the peasants, they were captured (one committing suicide). 13 It is, astonishingly, to a Zekwala-landowning: family--in the person of the late minister or his wife--that the secret service captain has petitioned, and the success of the petition shows (in amazingly few, if cryptic, words) the power of the aristocratic Amhara families. Treated with similar economy, by implication again, is the secret police technique (widely suspected, if not common) of gaining information through the confessional, a practice facilitated by extremely it loose Ethiopian monastic regulation and almost free entrance to the low clerical orders.14
The emphatic placement of the Preacher episode as well as it almost total irrelevance to the story line of the novel is noteworthy. The sections of the novel, while observing a rough chronological sequence are only loosely narrative. The Thirteenth Sun deals with a reality in which states of mind, often insecure, tentative, suspicious, and deceptive, are more significant than objective events. Each section is not then, an advance in action so much as it is an accretion of subjective and ambiguous awareness. Similarly, the characters are symbolic and ambiguous--as well as naturalistic. Even the farenj episode, incredible it is, shows concretely the credulity of the ordinary Ethiopian, who is likely to believe anything said by (or of) the European, and to Place no limits on what the farenj capable of. The Fitawrary and Goytom and their relationship, are no less dually symbolic and natural than the rest. Indeed, as suggested earlier; their symbolic function is the cohesive factor for the novel as a whole.
It has been said that Goytom is The Young Educated Ethiopian. The Fitawrary, in contrast, may be taken to be The Reactionary Old Aristocrat. An exchange between them illustrates this they talk of the old man's burial
"In case you're entertaining the idea of putting me at another place. ..."
"My right of inheritance will immediately be annulled?"
"And half of my property shall go to those who up-hold the cause of church building throughout Ethiopia ... and the other half to all the people who shall take part in the prayer for my salvation."
"I wouldn't have minded if it were for the building of schools. ..."
"You know well enough that I don't go for that kind of rubbish. ..." (p. 4)
But the Fitawrary is more than the stereotyped Old Reactionary. Early in the novel, Goytom--in the monotony of walking the long harsh road to Zekwala--hears his father's sounds of illness, and imaginatively inflates him into a universal, god-like presence:
And then something began to rumble and gurgle in the sick man's chest. He began to twitch and roll convulsively. You began to think, listening to him, that he must be a wizard, and master of these remote cliffs, ranges of hills, buttresses and the table mountain--that he it was who originally planted the church in this killing ruggedness, and wantonly dotted-the hills with those rotten hovels--that it was he who had poisoned men's brains with complacency-- that it was he who devoured their hearts with stagnancy and decadence--that it was he who was responsible for this deadly existence. ...(pp. 8-9)
At the time of publication--for an Ethiopian living and working as Danichew was in Addis Ababa--this may have been dangerous writing indeed, for it all too clearly suggests an identification of the Fitawrary with "the Old Man" himself, the Emperor. Daniachew confirmed this in a personal communication, in which he also pointed out that, in a passage quoted earlier, the phrase "Begging for manna from Heaven" replaced a more explicit "Begging from Europe, begging from America. .., " words which too obviously characterized the Emperor.15 Through the Fitawrary's ambiguous identification with the Emperor, the novel becomes a vision of the whole nation, its superstition, religiosity, corruption, and poverty--and at the same time its beauty, vigor, devotion and splendor.
With so much subtlety already apparent, the critic is justified in finding ingenious relationships. Woynitu's Galla connection fits her character, for the "Galla girls" Goytom imagines he will provide for the pleasures of "All those big men" are similarly anonymous and helpless, imagining themselves perhaps urban ladies, but--in Daniachew's Ethiopia--responding more naturally to the coarse splendor of the Peasant, himself certainly a Galla. The Galla--or Oromo--people have for three centuries been a vital part of southern Ethiopian life, with frequent conflicts as well as intermarriages (Haile Sellassie's wife was Galla, a granddaughter of a Galla ruler in Wollo). They have, however, like other non-Amhara, non-Tigre people south of Eritrea, been substantial non-Christian and subject to the more traditional aristocracy That the Peasant should be a Christian Galla is perfectly natural, as most of the peasantry of the region around and to the south of Addis Ababa are Christian Gallinya-speaking people, the Abu Galla16 Although the Amhara are politically dominant, Galla are the largest ethnic community in Ethiopia; Daniachew is clearly aware of their potential.
Extrapolating, one may suspect that the Fitawrary-Emperor needs the peasant strength for Ethiopia's revival, and that the varied peoples symbolized in the novel as coming together to save the old man's life are indeed needed to save the Empire.
Yet, in a tragic irony, it is the Peasant, the "conjure plow-man, " "painted black all over, ...covering only his inexpressibles with leaves of besanna, ...hiding and gliding in the bushes,17 recognized by the Fitawrary as his devil-enemy. The old man rouses himself to action, shoots the "devil" dead--an act that takes from him his own last measure of strength. In a moment he, too, is dead. Is it symbolic that the Fitawrary cannot be saved, for he himself cannot distinguish devil-friend from devil-enemy? Is this to be Ethiopia's fate? To say so suggests allegory rather than ambiguity; The Thirteenth Sun is marked by the latter, not by the former. Daniachew has shown the suspicion, the danger, the complexity, but he has not drawn conclusions.
To draw conclusions would be to label, to condemn perhaps Daniachew does neither. Although the Fitawrary was a bad governor of a district (pp. 56-57) and a corrupt dealer and land owner, still through out the novel his treatment is astonishingly sympathetic. In a passage (pp. 74-77) immediately preceded by, in a "faded writing"--"Welcome, Your Imperial Majesty"--Goytom reviews how his father "helped me to see the light"--educating him, finding him a job, setting an example ; (through telling of his past life) of manliness and courage, teaching him acceptance of life as it is. Goytom's contempt seems ill-willed and unjust:
A man who has never loved for love's sake, who hasn't worked for work's sake, a man who hasn't fought for humanity, who hasn't stood for some universal truth in life, except--land, wealth, title, patriotism and that sort of rubbish. (p. 77)
Rubbish? Little wonder the Fitawrary "thinks the farenj have bewitched" Goytom, farenj that is, who were his schoolteachers. That farenj dominated the schools when Goytom was a student is simple fact: half the a secondary schools' staff were foreign up until 1970.18 Goytom's confused idealism seems to be a U. S. Peace Corps product, and it is surely significant that the Fitawrary and his "enemy, " the Peasant, are more splendid and compelling than the lesser--more sophisticated--mortals who survive them.
Daniachew could not have foreseen that the reign of Haile Seslassie would end other than by the Emperor's death, yet he seems to have foreseen the nature of events that would follow the end--or fall--of the Neguse Nagast, the King of Kings. For Goytom, "For the first time in my life, realized that he was my father, after all" (p. 164).
In the closing pages, the police fail to arrive, one day, then two. The cadaver begins to reek; vultures, attracted to the party descending the mountain the third day, pluck at the old man's face. The servants revolt at the nauseating smell, and must be bribed to continue. Thus Goytom has begun the task of taking the rotting body one hundred miles on foot for burial at Debre Libanos, sacred to Tekle-Haymanot, to whom it was promised, "Whoever is buried at your place will go directly to heaven" (p. 48).
Young Goytom's horrible journey with the decaying corpse of Ethiopia's past, naturalistic as it seems, is the final symbolism of the novel. However Haile Selassie's rule was to end, it would be some such descent from the volcano. The Fitawrary's last days exposed the massive contradictions in modern Ethiopia: a past that cannot be left behind and a present that has not been prepared for. If that is Daniachew's message, then the novel has a final ambiguity; he says nothing of the future. The present will have to be endured.
1. In Ethiopian practice, the first name given is the correct formal appellation (to be preceded by a title, if called for), the second being an identification of the individual's father; the exception is names which are actually a name-phrase, as in Sahle Selassie, or "Clemency of the Trinity" (cf. Haile Selassie, "Power of the Trinity").
2. African Writers Series (London: Heinemann, 1973). Page references to the novel in this essay are in parentheses in the text. -
3. Fitawrary is a traditional military title, now largely an indication of noble rank or birth, awarded by the Emperor, and, during their occupation, even by the Italians. Woldu, however, was a soldier in fact as well as in title. Chapter 2, "The Traditional Elites, " in Patrick Gilkes The Dying Lion (London: Friedmann, 1975), provides a useful discussion of both the titled aristocracy and the church.
4. Bishoftu is the Gallinya name for what is usually identified on maps by its Amharic name Debra Zeit. Because the road is so commonly called the Bishoftu road, it is not a necessary assumption that ! Daniachew's use of the non-Amharic name is significant. Other spellings for Zekwala are Chiqwala (used on p. 9) and Zuquala; when a name is used in the novel, I have spelt the name as it is usually found in novel since the transliteration of Amharic to English spelling is not standardized.
5. Abbo is, more properly, Gabra Manfas Qeddus ("Servant of the Holy Spirit"). D. N. Levine identifies him as one of the main benevolent spirits. He and only one other Ethiopian saint have days on the monthly calendar, along with Saints George, Michael, Gabriel, Mary, the Trinity, etc. Wax and Gold (Chicago, 1965, 1972), pp. 68, 73, 235., The other saint is Tekle-Haymanot, about whom, see below. "Kidne Mehret, " mentioned in the novel as a saint having a calendar day (p.38) is actually the Covenant of Mercy, thought of, however, as a spiritual being.
6. personal communication. Goytom's age, discussed below, implies that the action takes place in 1972 or 1973.
7. Levine, p. 9. His entire book centers on this ambiguity.
8. Teff is untranslatable: a prized grain that grows only in Ethiopia, in the mid-range tropical highlands.
9. Zar according to Levine, to whom the Conjure Woman is a "tanquay"--a sorcerer (pp. 69-71).
10. Any European or American is farenj, foreigner.
11 . Daniachew, p. 138. "Thirteen Months of Sunshine" has long been a slogan for Ethiopian Air Lines, and it refers to the peculiarity of the Ethiopian calendar, which has twelve months of thirty days each, plus Pagumien, which comes at the end of the year and has five days, with a sixth in leap year.
12 . Mengistu and Girmame Neway, the leaders, and their family connections are discussed by Gilkes (see n. 3); see the Moja family genealogy, pp. 238-39.
13 . Richard Greenfield, Ethiopia, A New Political History (London: Pall Mall, 1965, 1967), pp. 434-35. Present Zekwala land ownership is in doubt, "owned" should perhaps be "owns."
14. See Levine, pp. 167-74, for a discussion of the Clergy, as well as Gi1kes, cited earlier .
15. That the Fitawrary-Emperor should consider education as "rubbish" may shock some readers who are aware of Haile Selassie's reputation as creator of the modern Ethiopian school system and university, and recall the frequent pictures of him visiting schoolchildren. Yet it is more likely that he limited education to the minimal needs of an increasingly complex government. See Gilkes, pp. 89 ff. His attitude-- and that of the Fitawrary, who sent Goytom to school--might be represented by "the famous (if apocryphal) remark of the late Leul-Ras Seyoum, in his late days as governor of Tigre, when pressed to expand the schools, "'I have educated two of my sons for you. Be content" (Greenfield, p. 383). One of the sons, Ras Mengesha, is at this writing in rebellion against the military government.
16. Greenfield, p.98.
17. Daniachew, pp. 128-29. This is earlier than the moment under discussion, but it is the Peasant's costume as devil. ! !
18. Gilkes, p. 94. The Peace Corps was expelled in 1970.
"Daniachew could not have foreseen that the reign of Haile Seslassie would end other than by the Emperor's death, yet he seems to have foreseen the nature of events that would follow the end - or fall - of the Neguse Nagast, the King of Kings..."