Book Review by Semere T. Habtemariam
Title: Deliverance: A Tale of Colliding passions and the Muse of Forgiveness
Author: Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie
Genre: Historical Novel
Publisher: RSP (Red Sea Press)
ISBN: 9781569025178 (HB) and 9781569025185 (PB)
A new novel by Dr. Bereket: Deliverance, a Tale of Colliding passions and the Muse of Forgiveness
Reading Dr. Bereket’s latest book, “Deliverance: A Tale of Colliding Passions and the Muse of Forgiveness” is like sitting around a campfire being regaled by a masterful storyteller who was among the group that midwifed the revolution in Ethiopia. It is an engrossing tale of tragedy which would please the gods of Mount Olympus looking down on human actions from the clouds and laughing at man’s delusion and myopia. But for mortals, it is a clarion call for somber reflection for “ultimately the passions of the moment will [have to] give way to dispassionate reflection putting the common good above factional and personal interests.”
The author contends that “a writer’s duty is to be counted on the side of justice and truth.” I am neither informed nor qualified enough to judge him on these twin pillars, but I can safely say that he has done a marvelous job of describing problems that have afflicted Ethiopia and Eritrea and prescribed solutions that could positively transform the region.
“We don’t have to go far to illustrate the tragic loss of life and waste that was caused by the tale of colliding passions described in this novel. The appeal to the redemptive power of forgiveness is an essential condition for the success of any attempt at reconciliation.”
I believe it is for this reason that he has appropriately titled his book “Deliverance: A Tale of Colliding Passions and the Muse of Forgiveness.”
Deliverance is the culmination of all of Dr. Bereket’s previous works that ties up the loose ends. This book depicts the personhood of Dr. Bereket more than any other book. It is the result of a lifetime reflection of the age-old question of what is the common good and the good life and of how to attain it at the individual and community level. Love to the former and justice to the latter turns out to be the touchstone of a healthy and balanced society.
The young revolutionary, the dreamer, the pan-Africanist, the lawyer, the judge, and the scholar Dr. Bereket might have been constrained in his previous works due to many possible considerations, be they personal, political and professional, but in Deliverance, he is totally free and unencumbered. The historical novel genre serves him well; he has the liberty to let “the loose wings of imagination.”
As if on a last call of duty, he seems to want to bring it all and bequeath a roadmap of peace, justice and development to his progeny and his revolutionary cohorts. The former because they are free from the baggage of experience and the latter of the possibility that “the passage of time” might have “mellowed” the “aging protagonists and antagonists of Ethiopia’s political drama,” to change “their outlook on life.” It is some of the merits of graceful aging.
It is for this reason that Socrates admitted his fondness of talking with old men because “they have proceeded on a certain road that perhaps we too will have to take, one ought in my opinion, to learn from them what sort of road it is—whether it is rough and hard or easy and smooth” (The Republic). Likewise, I implore young people to read Dr. Bereket latest novel.
Perhaps literary works speak to our soul more than any other. It is hard not to empathize and sympathize with the main characters of Deliverance: young Ethiopian students inspired by lofty ideas and ready to make the ultimate sacrifices.
As an Eritrean who was teeming with rightful indignation at the suffering of my people, I never bothered to appreciate the suffering of Ethiopians at the hands of our mutual enemy—the brutal regime. At the intellectual level, I was aware of their suffering, but emotionally it was easy to shrug it off as a self-inflicted misery.
The power of Dr. Bereket’s novel was that it forced me to empathize and put myself in the shoes of my Ethiopian brothers and sisters. On the road to Damascus that the author built, I found my epiphany: the Ethiopian victims were me. The dialogue I had with the characters has a transformative impact and it is this kind of a meaningful and constructive dialogue that our people need. I hope the great Ethiopian filmmaker, Dr. Haile Garima, will one day turn this novel into a movie.
One thing that is clearly and undeniably visible is the author’s love of the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia and his wish to see them living in peace, harmony and justice, but even more, to see them being the springboard for a future united Africa; his undying commitment to the long-held Pan-Africanist belief of African unity. Shouldn’t this be the wish of every Eritrean and Ethiopian!
The elder statesman has an 84-year old side-mirror where objects are a lot closer than they appear and wants to caution those in power and the opposition and the society at large so history will not be repeated. In prescribing dialogue as way of reconciling differences, the author, for example, does not create the wrong moral equivalency in trying to appear fair and impartial as has become the fashion in today’s public discourses and diplomacy.
The challenge of a civilized conversation, he points out “concerns both government and opposition. But the onus lies with the government to start the ball rolling.”
Winning a peace needs a strategy as much as winning a war.
The mutual recriminations and denunciations between respective governments and oppositions do not serve the cause of peace; a middle ground must be found. Those in government today were yesterday’s opposition and it is a matter of time when today’s opposition will be in tomorrow’s government. This vicious cycle must stop and it is the responsibility of the governments to take the initiative and reach out to the oppositions and for the opposition to embrace it.
The way the opposition behaves is, for the most part, determined by how it is treated by those in power. Violence breeds violence and peace breeds peace, and this awesome responsibility squarely falls on the shoulders of those in government. “Just as there is a culture of violence and death, there can be a culture of love and life. But like everything else, it has to be cultivated.”
The book cleverly juxtaposes two stories: the birth of a child left abandoned at the church courtyard and the outbreak of the revolution. In fact, the latter is the writ large of the former.
The plot reminds one of what Plato did in the Republic where the city becomes the overmagnification of the individual. If one could understand “the unfortunate act of a mother who left her baby to the mercy of the elements on a cold November morning,” then one could understand the political upheavals that engulfed the nation. “Whatever it is that drove that woman to abandon her baby, whether it is poverty or shame of conceiving a child outside what is accepted behavior by our society, the very act of leaving her baby on the ground abandoning her to an unknown fate is horrendous.”
As the character Aberra would write in his diary, “…the revolution exploded in our faces long before we were ready for it; long before the squabbling factions of our revolutionary groups could heal their mutually inflicted wounds. And the revolution threw up from its womb unexpected forces and individuals that surprised us.”
An unnamed Eritrean freedom fighter “likened revolution and revolutionary justice like an unexpected summer storm that produces a powerful torrential rain and stream rushing down from the highlands and taking with it everything that lay in its path. Not until it reaches the even level of the plains down in the lowlands will it dispose of and leave aside what it forcibly brought down.”
The small and inconsequential benefits that came as the result of the revolution pale in comparison to the huge destruction levied on the country. The loss far outweighs the gain, and victory cannot be more hollow.
My antipathy for revolutions dates to my childhood memories; a five-year old victim forced to flee his home and perpetually live in exile.
My conservatism is not rooted in some atavistic attachment to everything old and past, but it stems from the practical recognition that change is natural and inevitable and that the best change of all is, in the words of Edmond Burke, the continual preservation of the good and its continual improvement: “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution” (Reflections on the Revolution in France).
Even the patron saint of revolutions, Che Guevara, had to admit that “cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel.”
This is not an excuse to be passive in the face of injustice but a call for prudence and to be mindful of the adage: be careful what you wish for. This understanding seems to come naturally to the religiously devout character Yohannes who was at peace with his individual moral responsibility and his ethical duties as a member of church. Yohannes was deeply rooted in his religious tradition but not limited by it. He was open to change and knew that differences and diversities were good things and source of vitality.
The ruling emperor, however, had his ship of state in a neutral gear; neither going forward nor backwards. Neutrality in the face of change was neither wise nor useful. The aging emperor Haile Selassie wiggled between the horns of modernism and traditionalism and miserably failed to provide the country a circumspect choice.
The “once illustrious and renowned world figure” was mostly responsible for his downfall; he dug his own grave for he stayed in power for far too long. He should have followed the example of one of Axum’s greatest leaders, the saintly king Caleb, who, at the height of his power, abdicated his throne and joined a monastery.
Knowing when to exit on the highway of power is the highest form of political wisdom; and it is invariably when one is at the top of one’s game. Unfortunately, it is a lesson that is also lost on all subsequent rulers of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The revolution in Ethiopia did not appear as a ghastly apparition; it has been in the making for a while and a confluence of events contributed to its violent outbreak.
In the absence of a clear national vision and a viable alternative, Ethiopian youth flocked to revolutionary ideas that became their oases in the desert. They had been footling about a revolution that would end the systemic feudal exploitation of the masses which has rendered the country the backwater of stagnation and underdevelopment and usher in an egalitarian and progressive society where democracy and social justice will supposedly be the norm.
They were part of a “generation that had been infected by the spirit of revolution at a time…We (one) could not escape being affected by what was going on everywhere in the world, especially the Third World, in Cuba, China and so on.” This was “the generation of destiny” with its “supreme confidence and heightened self-regard” as its most “distinguishing mark.”
The we-know-it-all attitude of the generation and its concomitant stubborn stupidity frowned upon any kind of compromise and peaceful dialogue in solving conflicts, and the revolution quickly degenerated into “a deadly struggle for the capture of fugitive glory.”
The single-minded and unconditional commitment to the be-all-end-all revolutionary ideology left no space for any alternative ideas to coexist and consequently any intellectual debate that ensued was to determine who is more Left and more devoted. It was a recipe for intellectual stagnation and morbidity.
The savoir-faire revolutionaries would solve all societal ills if they would just remove the status-quo and install communism in its place. It was the worst form of idolatry; the rebirth of the golden calf.
It was the sign of the times; young people pontificating about political matters in jargons which obfuscated the real and practical demands of the Ethiopian people.
A lose network of schlockmeisters of revolutionary ideas emerged in campuses and schools of Ethiopia to circulate some notable books that engendered a slavish commitment to alien ideas on the youth. “They started selling Marxist literature, including Mao Zedong’s little red book.”
In a country that had a profound sense of its history, no one had the temerity to question the wisdom, relevance and applicability of communism and the revolution soon morphed into a Faustian movement that denigrated its spiritual and cultural heritage. The youth of a country, that stretched forth its hand to God before any other nation, nonchalantly ignored the Biblical injunction: Do not move the ancient boundaries set up by your forbearers.
The new god of the revolution will not allow any other god to be worshipped and non-conformity became the worst offense. The alchemists of the revolution unleashed an unprecedented reign of terror which wreaked havoc in the country. As the mansuetude of revolutionary love gave way to internecine fratricide, only a very few were duly warned and perturbed by the incipient dysfunction of the revolution. “The colliding passions of groups with similar ideologies and commitments governed the course of events, with violence as the inevitable arbiter of disputes.”
Of course, telling the most committed generation of revolutionaries that they were wrong is like telling a five-year old that Santa does not exist; nothing good comes out of it. It should be left to the healing hand of time and it is perhaps for this reason that the author treats it simply as a fait accompli. But the undeniable truth is that, in the words of professor Gebrue Tareke, “a generation was wasted in a blind rage.”
The book invokes all sorts of emotions; it is a deeply engaging narrative. For anyone who seeks understanding of the cataclysmic events that have shaped modern Ethiopia and Eritrea, this is a great source. I hope it will be widely read.
The book could have even much more impact if it had left some of the conclusions to the imagination. Quite often mystery is much more useful than history. No good book shares its secrets easily. Readers must wrestle the secrets out of this book as Jacob wrestled with the Angel for that is the most effective way of transformation: Jacob becoming Israel. It is personal, empowering and less intrusive.
In a season that honors the Prince of Peace, Deliverance is a fitting gift. Deliverance is an attempt to fill the fissures left gaping by war with love and peace. “Happy are those who work for peace,” and I hope “God will call” Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie “his child” (Mt 5:9-14).
The book can be ordered directly from the publisher at Red Sea Press