Nega Mezlekia. Picador USA, $24 (368p) ISBN 0-312-26988-9
"Hyenas are the most common, notorious predators in Ethiopia," notes Mezlekia, thus their power in local myth and as a metaphor for the forces that have torn Ethiopia apart in recent decades. This lyrical memoir of an Ethiopian childhood echoes both the myth and the violence of the hyena. In the first third of his literary debut, Mezlekia intersperses accounts of his mischievous, rebellious childhood with the magical tales told by his family to interpret various experiences: magic and spirits were part of everyday life for young Mezlekia. He also carefully delineates the customs of and relations between the Christian and Muslim communities in his hometown of Jijiga. (Mezlekia's mother, though a Christian, took her son to a Muslim medicine man to cleanse him following a series of boyish escapades.) But a third of the way through the text, the material world supplants the world of the spirit and innocence that governed Mezlekia's early childhood-social and political upheaval ruled Ethiopian life in the late 1970s and '80s. At times, Mezlekia, who now lives in Canada, does not clearly describe the various factions that wrestled for power when he was a teenager and college student. But he treats the chaos and famine that enveloped his country with seriousness and style-"The revolution was eating Ethiopian children at an alarming rate"-and even while recounting famine and war, he never loses the wit that no doubt helped him to survive some of the worst humanity has to offer. (Jan.)
Forecast: This lovely and terrible memoir will undoubtedly be well reviewed and thus reach readers interested not only in the fate of Africa but also in a lyrical account of a foreign childhood. There is an author tour planned.