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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Conscript

Gebreyesus Hailu

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Title: The Conscript
Author: Gebreyesus Hailu
Genre: Novel
Written: (1927) (Eng. 2013)
Length: 78 pages
Original in: Tigrinya
Availability: The Conscript - US
The Conscript - UK
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The Conscript - India
  • A Novel of Libya's Anticolonial War
  • Tigrinya title: ንዝተዓስከረ ንዓሓደ መንእሰይ ዘርኢ፤ ሓደ፡ ዛንታ።
  • Written in 1927; first published in 1950
  • Translated by Ghirmai Negash
  • With an Introduction by Laura Chrisman

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Our Assessment:

B : rough but intriguing historical literary work

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Conscript, written (in Tigrinya) in 1927, first published in 1950, and now available in an English translation, is a short novella of the experience of soldiers from what was at that time the Italian colony of Eritrea, conscripted to fight in Libya. Barely fifty pages long, the central figure it follows to and from Libya is Tuquabo Medhaniye Alem, an only son from a relatively well-to-do family (able, for example, to hire a Moslem family to take care of their cattle).
       In a time when there was much talk (and singing) of the glories of the war in Libya, young Tuquabo became convinced this was something he should participate in. And:

His ambition may also have been influenced by those Habesha chiefs who said they hated to sit idle after a brief break from going to war. They begged, "Lord, don't let us be dormant, please bring us war." Their eagerness was evident in their boastful sayings that the exercise might help trim their fattened bodies.
       This glorification of war in the abstract (and on home turf) naturally bore no relation to the reality of the Italian's distant Libyan campaign, especially since the Habesha (these Ethiopic men, mostly youngsters) fought not for themselves or their own cause or country, but rather for the Italians. The unfamiliar and forbidding terrain alone was a shock; American and European readers may think of Ethiopia (and Eritrea) as a famine-prone desolate region but of course the highland-dominated reality is a very different one, and confronted with the deserts of Libya the Habesha suddenly found themselves in very hostile lands:
With the open cloudless sky, it was like a hot oven. The nausea created by the permanent blaze and the absence of breeze makes one wonder whether one is in the land of life or death. What a stark difference, when you think of the green, windy, fertile lands of Ethiopia, where streams flow.
       Ill-equipped for, and inexperienced in these conditions -- especially the blazing sand (many conscripts didn't even have shoes) -- and led by Italian officers who clearly were neither organizationally nor militarily particularly gifted, it's clear this could not go particularly well for the Habesha. Long-standing enmity between the Habesha and the Arabs at least gave some incentive to go after the Libyan locals in the battles the Habesha were thrust into, but the two sides also came into these conflicts entirely differently. Soon enough the Habesha come to realize: "how foolish it was to fight in a stranger's war with no benefit to one's country" -- while:
The Arabs felt different, deep in their hearts. They knew they were going to fight for their country in their country. If they were defeated, they knew where to run. If they were thirsty, they knew where to find water. If they sought shelter in a place, they would find someone to give them sanctuary.
       All the Habesha have to rely on and turn to are the Italians -- and the Italians do not come off looking good (or brave) here .....
       Different approaches to warfare also come into play, as the Italians don't train their conscripts particularly well, but do expect them to follow their instructions. So when all hell breaks loose -- i.e. the different sides clash --:
It was a horrible and strangely bewildering moment to watch the Arabs running, the Habesha chasing, the Italians shouting -- all three different cultures, with different fighting styles, mixed up in war. For the Habesha fighting a war was to push forward, whatever the cost; for the Italians it was to abide by the order of your commander, even if an enemy comes face to face, for nobody should move unless commanded (as they say). And above all, nobody should shoot unless under instructions. They tell you to do nothing, even if you are slaughtered, until they give their order ! For the Arabs, first you should run fast towards your enemy, and then, if things turn out bad, you run for your life. In short, the Habesha work with incomparable strength, the Italians through arrangement, and the Arabs through action and risk.
       The Conscript is an interesting historical account of the Habesha experience under the Italians, and in the Libyan campaign, with some vivid descriptions of the travel to and from their homeland. As a literary work it is decidedly amateur: there is some talent here, but the writing is uneven and too much is left underdeveloped. While Tuquabo is the most prominent individual in the story, Hailu also presents the experience in much more general terms, a shift back and forth in perspective that takes away from some of what is otherwise an often powerful immediacy.
       A bit unstructured, a bit unfocussed, The Conscript is valuable for its perspective -- the Habesha experience, rather than how the Italians saw things--, and it's too bad Hailu did not expand on the experiences in greater detail; to present a two-year ordeal (along with a bit of Tuquabo's backstory) in less than sixty pages can't do justice to it all. What he lingers over and observes is often quite powerful, but he lingers too briefly and skims over too much. Elements -- such as why so much of the male Habesha population heeds the Italian call to fight abroad -- are also underdeveloped, and while the relationship between colonizer and colonized was presumably clearer to Hailu's readers, contemporary readers are left wondering why anyone would pay any attention to the Italians (whose role -- and, it's suggested, influence -- is consistently, apart from the battlefields, presented as minor).
       The Translator's Note and an Introduction by Laura Chrisman provide helpful background and contextual information, and while both Negash and Chrisman overstate the quality (if not necessarily the significance) of the text in their cheerleading -- and thus perhaps raise expectations rather too high for this slim volume -- such enthusiastic advocacy is welcome for a small text that otherwise might not get the attention it deserves.
       Rough though it is, The Conscript is also of some literary interest, and should be seen as more than just an historical curiosity.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 March 2013

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The Conscript: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gebreyesus Hailu lived in Eritrea and Ethiopia, 1906 to 1993.

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© 2013 the complete review

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