An arid, sun-baked land along the Red Sea, Eritrea has long been defined by those who possessed it. It was a province of the mighty Axumite empire, which dominated the Horn of Africa before the Middle Ages, a colony of Mussolini's Italy, which transformed the capital, Asmara, into an Art Deco showcase, and a prize for the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who coveted its ports. During the cold war, the United States armed Selassie to fight Eritrea's Marxist separatists--the forebears of the country's present-day leaders--because the country offered an ideal place to intercept the radio transmissions of our enemies (and allies).
Wrong is at her best when recounting this history. She has a keen appreciation for the recurring irony of Africa: that the well-intentioned so often do the most harm. She exhumes obscure historical figures like the Italian politician Ferdinando Martini, a reformist at home who nonetheless presided over his country's consolidation of colonial power in Eritrea, and Sylvia Pankhurst, a British suffragette who helped liberate the country from Italian and later British rule, only to deliver it to a mendacious African, Selassie. Wrong has a particular eye for the husks these withered empires left behind: a desolate war cemetery filled with the dead of an arduous 1941 battle between the British and Italian armies; the old Fascist Party headquarters, now the country's Ministry of Education, "where a stone staircase bearing a wrought-iron motif of flaming torches"--the blackshirts' symbol--"rises grandly to the first floor."
She also tracks down some living relics of Eritrea's past. She visits John Spencer, Selassie's American lawyer, at a Long Island nursing home, and uses him as a vehicle to explain the back-room legerdemain that led to Eritrea's being ceded to Ethiopia after World War II. She interviews a group of retired American soldiers who worked at the military's top-secret base in Kagnew. By day, they manned the listening post. By night, they formed a clique called the "Gross Guys," drinking heavily and staging frat-house hijinks.
What's missing from this recitation of the history, which goes on for well over half the book, are any memorable Eritrean characters. This gap is understandable when it comes to the distant past--she notes that the Italians buried their Eritrean military conscripts under gravestones marked "Ascaro Ignoto," or "unknown soldier"--but less so when it comes to more recent events. It's also curious, since Wrong is convincing in describing her affection for the Eritrean people, who by her account are purposeful, hardened and severe, like the terrain on which they live. "By God, they were impressive," she writes in the opening chapter, describing initial encounters so uniform in their postindependence euphoria that she came to have "the uncanny feeling that I was speaking to the many mouths of one single, Hydra-headed creature: the Eritrean soul." One wishes, however, that Wrong had amplified a few more individual voices over the chorus of this oversoul.
The uniformity of opinion is hardly surprising, given that Eritrea has been a military dictatorship for its entire twelve-year existence. Regimes born of armed struggle are fundamentally different from other governments: Leaders who were willing to die to gain power rarely cede it willingly. Uganda's President Museveni, the elder statesman of Clinton's renaissance quartet, who has done many good things for his country, encapsulated this sentiment perfectly in a 2002 speech to his Parliament, in which he warned opponents about trying to challenge his rule through civil disobedience. "We are people in suits by day but in uniform at night. We fought a liberation war," he said. "Don't play around with freedom fighters."
Wrong, who is remorseless when it comes to the failings of the Italians, British and Ethiopians, is positively gushing in her depiction of Eritrea's freedom fighters, whom she likens to the Spartans of ancient Greece. Admittedly, they benefit from the comparison to their opponents. In 1974 Selassie was overthrown by a military junta known as the Derg. After some infighting, an army colonel named Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the Derg's leader. Elite Ethiopians scoffed at Mengistu's dark skin and diminutive stature, but the insecure dictator proved ruthlessly effective at eliminating enemies. When the Americans cut off aid, Mengistu embraced Communism--he capped one memorable rally by smashing a Coca-Cola bottle filled with blood--winning the favor, and the arms shipments, of the Soviet Union.
Mengistu's well-equipped army drove Eritrea's separatist rebels into an impenetrable mountainous region known as the Sahel. There, they hunkered down and trained, building an elaborate network of schools, hospitals and factories, which were often literally situated underground. Wrong describes this exilic period as a utopian moment: Uneducated villagers took literature classes in caves; a self-taught chef whipped lentils into delicacies; a rebel pianist played recitals under thorn trees, amid the bombs. Female fighters sported Afros, and their children, called "Red Flowers," were communally raised. The "absence of worldly distractions," Wrong writes, "encouraged a clarity of thought the meditating monks of Shangri-La would have recognized."
Strangely, Wrong does not tell us much about the leader of the "Movement," Isaias. She says that in her research for the book, she managed to interview Eritrea's reclusive president several times, yet she dispenses with a character sketch in a scant four pages, far less space than she devotes to describing the scatological derring-do of America's Gross Guys. She mentions in passing that during the time in the Sahel, opponents of Isaias were often "made to 'disappear' with typical Eritrean quietness." This is a worrisome harbinger, one that makes Wrong wonder whether the rebel experience "also contained the seeds of Eritrea at its worst."
But the point is not pursued--the enthusiastic oversoul was apparently not expansive on the subject of extrajudicial murders--and such troubling thoughts are not allowed to cloud Wrong's overall narrative, a tale of brave resistance. She contrasts the rebels with the debauched American servicemen who served in Kagnew, and asks, "Which life, given the choice, would I pick?" She answers, "Give me the Sahel any day, because the choice between blandness and passion seems no choice at all." She doesn't venture the logical next question, however. What society would she rather live in: one in which soldiers are subordinate to civilians, or one in which an all-powerful movement rules?