LAST NIGHT (13 May 2019) at the RSL ONDAATJE AWARD

 

 

 

When is a life worth telling? Aida Edemariam’s extraordinary memoir of her grandmother’s life in 20th century Ethiopia combines high drama with domestic detail, in a jewel-like amalgam of history and fable that enchants from start to finish. Last night at the Travellers Club in London The Wife’s Tale was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s prize of £10,000 for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, best evoking the spirit of a place.”

 

There was no doubt among the Ondaatje Prize judges that The Wife’s Tale was an exceptional work of literature. The memoir shows a novelist’s hand in its evocation of place. The strong hot breath of Ethiopia’s sub-Saharan landscape fairly lifts off the page. Above all, The Wife’s Tale is work of filial devotion, that reflects the author’s profound attachment to her maternal Ethiopian ancestry.

 

In pages of incantatory prose, Edemariam refracts the tumultuous public life of Ethiopia through the prism of her grandmother’s life. Yetemegnu speaks to us of war and revolution, mass executions, land seizures and famine. She is unsparing and courageous in her reckoning with bereavement. There may be a special risk when putting a family relative into “self-biography” (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge called memoir). Yet Yetemegnu, a strong and distinctive voice, belongs to a people with thousands of years of civilization behind them: she is quite captivating.

 

 

 

How does an ordinary person live through history? This is the question Edemariam asks herself. Fascist Italy’s war on Ethiopia was not her grandmother’s war; Yetemegnu had not expected to live in such an unusual moment. The plundering of Haile Selassie’s kingdom by Mussolini in 1935 makes for baleful reading. For many Ethiopians, Selassie was the Saviour, the Lion of Judah whose coming had been foretold in the Old Testament. He was allowed to return home to his throne in Ethiopia only in 1941 after the Fascist “Babylon” had been defeated by the British army. Edemariam’s genius is to interweave these clamorous public events with the events of an ordinary private life, and to make something beautiful of them both.

 

Michele Roberts and Sabrina Mahfouz, my fellow Ondaatje Prize judges, were as impressed as I was by the book’s ambition. Over a period of twenty years Edemariam tape-recorded the stories told to her by her grandmother in Amharic, the ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia. Inevitably the stories had been buffed and burnished to a fictional sheen in Yetemegnu’s re-tellings, but Edemariam distils a poetic essence and truth from them. Impressively, she passes no judgement on her grandmother’s violent and controlling husband, but allows him to come to life on the page in all his imperfections. Yetemegnu herself lives on through the corruption and “Red Terror” of President Mengistu and Ethiopia’s murderous border dispute with Eritrea. “What time is it now?”, she asks her grand-daughter as she approaches 100 years old. “What time?” Before dying she makes a pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary’s grave in Jerusalem (Edemariam, incidentally, means “hand of Mary”).

 

The Ondaatje Prize is now in its fifteenth year. Nine years ago, in 2010, the prize was awarded to me for a book I wrote on contemporary British-Jamaican relations, The Dead Yard. Still in my dinner suit I was driven at some speed to the BBC in order to be interviewed. (“At least someone round here still dresses properly”, commented the woman at reception.) With the prize money I took my wife and children to Naples. No expense was spared. We checked in to the best hotels and ate like kings. The city’s obscure exuberance of life acted on me like an aphrodisiac; the children complained of the August heat, but without the Ondaatje Prize they would not have seen Pompeii or climbed Vesuvius. አመሰግናለሁ: “thank you” (in Amharic).