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The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades

by Nega Mezlekia

The publicity bumph for Ethiopian-born Nega Mezlekia’s second novel places him in the company of Gabriel García Márquez and Ben Okri, among others. I would add one more: Rohinton Mistry. Like Mistry, Mezlekia writes in an amused but compassionate voice about characters standing at cultural crossroads, trying to make sense of change.

The Yitades family sits at the heart of the tiny agrarian village of Mechara. Aba Yitades is the parish priest. This is a Christian community, part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. One of the novel’s strengths comes from the author’s ability to show how Christianity mingles with rural Ethiopian culture – how place mediates faith, or creates particular religious practice. (This, too, echoes Mistry.)

Dwarfed by the nearby town of Gelemso, Mechara watches as a highway is built, speeding up travel between the village’s older, rural ways and the busy, modern, urban enticements at the other end of the roadway. Various salesmen and scam artists descend upon Mechara. An American family, mistaken at first for former Italian occupiers, comes too. New products and modes of transit arrive. Mezlekia renders these scenes with precision and gentle humour.

Azeb is Aba’s youngest daughter. Her journey down the highway provides the novel’s three decades’ worth of action, beginning in the 1960s. Her figure enacts the theme of choices having unforeseen, often unfortunate, consequences. Though the trials of the daughter are the novel’s focus, it is the father who almost steals the show. Clutching his “Black Ledger,” in which he records failings and shortcomings of faith, Aba Yitades symbolizes the man out of time, confused and grasping. Maybe mine is a particularly male reading of this excellent novel, but Aba Yitades registers every bit as boldly as Azeb.