Book Review

The Lost Spell by Yismake Worku

some contemporary ethiopian magical realism

I don’t think I’ve ever read any Ethiopian literature ever before.

That’s obviously a bad thing, because – as we all know – Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in the world (and the only (or one of two) countries in mainland Africa to never be successfully colonised (though I think (some) Italians might disagree with that)) and has a rich literary, architectural socio-cultural history.

Unfortunately, the only time Ethiopia has really been in the news recently has been due to the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region of the country.

Even with this very small amount of knowledge, going into this bestselling 2013 Ethiopian novel, The Lost Spell, with a minuscule sliver of context was useful, as – despite this being a contemporary novel – this book would really have benefited from editorial/translators annotations to assist with the ignorant English reader’s experience. I don’t think I have an exceptionally low level of knowledge about Ethiopia; I think the general level of knowledge of Ethiopia in England is woefully low. This is our problem, I get that, but this new translation added a gushing Foreword, so clearly there was a bit of budget – and space in the book – for a little bit of extra text.

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There is lots of discussion of histories and mythologies from Ethiopia, as well as specific and individual politicians, but with the absence context-building introduction/afterword/annotations, I have no idea how factual/traditional/real these histories/myths/politicians actually are.

Is the magic scroll possessed by the protagonist, Didimos Dore,, a genuine historic document with reported magical powers? Is the historical reported wizard who wrote the document a real figure from the past? Did the Ethiopian prime minister come to power democratically then switch into authoritarianism and rigged elections, before dying in office a decade or so ago?

These are, of course, things that I could research for myself, and I suppose the fact that I didn’t while reading The Lost Spell is testament to the fact that this knowledge isn’t really essential to enjoy Worku’s novel.

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The Lost Spell is a broadly satirical magical realist text about a successful middle-aged businessman and historian who has had a lifelong interest in magic and the occult, which he has kept on the DL the entire time.

In his early 50s, he decides to take a punt on one of the more complex spells at his disposal, and to his surprise it works: he is turned into a dog and, as a dog, and with no access to his magical scrolls as he left them in his house before going to the countryside to do some magic in a safe secluded spot, he is unable to time himself back into a human.

What follows, then, is basically Homeward Bound if the animals in Homeward Bound had turned themselves into animals by mistake, and if it was set in Ethiopia, rather than whichever part of the North American land mass Homeward Bound is set.

Didimos at first panics, and feels super worried about eating raw food, about contracting rabies from other dogs, and about becoming a semi-willing participant in zoophilic sexual activities (think House Mother Normal, friends).

As a dog but with his human mind intact, Didimos travels from rural Southern Ethiopia back to Addis Ababa, stopping off on the way in various towns and villages.

The first person narrator, as a middle-aged businessman, does that very middle-aged businessman thing of discursively chatting historical facts from a subjective-yet-presumed-objective perspective, offering his insights into the recent and long-term history of the places he travels through. 

As a large canine, Didimos is able to save a woman from a potential assault, he is able to comfort people who are unhappy, and he is able to successfully beg for scraps from butchers and households, and he even (almost) accidentally leads a dog uprising (see White God) and once he finally gets a rabies vaccination, he even beats a dog or two in combat.

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Worku’s metaphorical satire of the dog-eat-dog animalistic viciousness of contemporary capitalistic life becomes a little on the [wet] nose by the end, but we do not live in a subtle world, or in a subtle era, and because there is a solid, well-paced, adventure narrative here (and a lot of humour), this is also never really a problem.

Something I didn’t notice until the end of the novel is that in place of an author name, chapter title, or book name at the top of the page (in the header) is the location within Ethiopia that Didimos happens to be in at that point in the narrative, which is a fun little textual quirk.

Maybe I will spend a bit of time browsing the Ethiopian history page on Wikipedia today. Maybe I won’t though, as I have a job interview and a few other things to do.

This book was translated by Bethlehem Attfield from the original Amharic – a language I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of until reading this, despite it having almost 60 million speakers worldwide.

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I think I think

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This is a beautiful paperback edition with a nice cover featuring images that appear occasionally within the text. 

There’s some connection with Unbound referred to at the end here, but as the publisher is listed as Henningham Family Press rather than Unbound, this means either Unbound has subtle imprints or are now working with other indie presses. Maybe I’ll look into this. Maybe not, as I said above I’m a bit busy.

Order direct from Henningham Family Press

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