Think of Addis Abeba a century ago. Reading this book by Brigitte Beil I was transported in my mind to this town and I saw the cosmopolitan character of it. People from nations far and near were mingling in this town with imperial status. It reminded me of present day New York or London. Adventurers and professionals, refugees and locals. All in a time of turmoil.
One man we encounter in this lively city is the German architect Carl Haertel. Back home his firm ran into financial problems when his brother left and went to Argentina. At that moment Carl ( in his early fourties) was invited to join a German party to go to Abbysinia. Bosch, the man that organized the party, had been asked to get some professionals to work in Addis Abeba. At that time Menelik II is the negus or emperor.
The book ‘Maskal’ is a historical novel. The writer takes up the historical Haertel family that lived in Addis Abeba from 1906 – 1942, seperated form each other during the Great War, when Anna stayed with their three daughters in Germany. When the Italians invaded Abbysinia the Haertel family was transported to prisoncamps. Carl died in 1941 in Dire Darwa. His wife and children were transported to Mandera, next Berbera and by ship to Triest (Italy).
During the years in Addis Abeba Carl Haertel worked as an architect for the emperial family and for private individuals. He built the mausoleum for Menelik II and many more buildings (among them the building for the German embassy). His wife Anna had close relations with the wife of the later negus Haile Selassi. She even accompanied her on her epic journey to the Near East. When Haile Selassi returned to Ethiopia after his exile the relation with the Haertel family had cooled down.
Brigitte Beil reveived information from a grandson of Carl and Anna Haertel. She wove this into a story with the general history of Abyssinia and the character of Katrina, the grandaughter of Eva, the third daughter of the family. Katrina discovers in the house an old cardboardbox with old pictures and notes. She talks about it with her grandmother and Eva tells about the hidden history of her family, her own hidden family.
In the book the relations of the emperial family and the Haertel family are on a good footing. There is no sense of colonial dedain (Abbysinia was not a colony!). Europeans were in Addis Abeba as long as the leading Abbysinians were willing to have them around. Anna in the beginning did some medical work to the benefit of the people around their mud house. Once the family lives in a stone house with a wall, her contacts with the Abbysinians are only with the upperclass. This sense of class distance is also shown when a young widowed relative comes to stay with the family. She, Lucie, gets to know a local man. This relationship is not apreciated. Lucy is not very keen on participating in the expatriate festivities that abound in town. When her lover dies she is heartbroken and dies as well.
Later, in the present days, Katerina gets lovingly involved with her Hennoch, her Ethiopian guide in Addis Abeba (a student of architecture, whose grandfather worked for Carl Haertel), and this is not seen as a problem. When Katrina visits Addis Abeba she wants to see the legacy of her greatgrandfather and she sees the statue of Meneliki, in front of St. George’s Church. She visits the grave of Lucie in Addis Abeba, but in Dire Dawa there is no trace of a grave of her ancestor Carl Haertel. In the end she talks with an Armenian man, Odabassian, nearly a hundred years old, who knew the family. According to this man, one of the few remaning of the many Armenians in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia is different from Africa, it is more related to the Jewish and southern Arabian world. Katrina returns to Germany, but she wants to return, maybe even for the remaining years of her life. In tjhis way she shows the continuing relations beteen Ethiopia and Germany.
Brigitte Beil takes the opportunity to relate the continuing history of the family of the negus Haile Selassie, even when the Hartel family is no longer in Ethiopia. In a way their place was taken by the Pankhurst family (yes, the one of suffragette-fame), that still lives in Ethiopia.
The writer or the translator did something extraordinary to the British writer Evelyn Waugh. This male writer is turned into a female one.
Maskal is the name of an important ecclesiastical feast for the Coptic Church in Ethiopia. It celebrates Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who went to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Jesus Christ hung, when he was executed by the Roman authorities. During this feast the love affair of Lucie starts. It is the very first feast the Haertel ladies witness after their return form Germany, and it was this festive occasion that was the last before the invasion by Italian forces.
In enjoyed reading this book.
Brigitte Beil – Maskal oder Das Ende der Regenzeit – 2003