The Conscript — 2012

A Novel of Libya’s Anticolonial War

By Gebreyesus Hailu
Translated by Ghirmai Negash
Introduction by Laura Chrisman

“Gebreyesus Hailu does Africa great service in recounting an all but forgotten and therefore all the more reprehensible chapter in African colonial history. In the same spirit, Ghirmai Negash’s superb translation brings back to world literature an Eritrean literary jewel of global and timeless relevance.”

Alemseged Tesfai, author of Two Weeks in the Trenches (2002)

“A fine, nuanced translation.”

Themes in Modern African History and Culture: Festschrift for Tekeste Negash

The Conscript gives the Tigrinya novel its early framing contour, as it shows sophistication and maturity in the depiction of the inner turmoil and real-life characteristics of its characters. It is a novel that grapples with issues of identity, self-agency, war, and the traumatic effects of (de)colonization on the human psyche. Read it and see for yourself how canonical novels like Things Fall Apart, Weep Not, Child, Houseboy, The Bluest Eye, are eerily prefigured in an early African-language novel.”

Ali Jimale Ahmed, Professor and Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, Queens College, CUNY

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Eloquent and thought-provoking, this classic novel by the Eritrean novelist Gebreyesus Hailu, written in Tigrinya in 1927 and published in 1950, is one of the earliest novels written in an African language and will have a major impact on the reception and critical appraisal of African literature.

The Conscript depicts, with irony and controlled anger, the staggering experiences of the Eritrean ascari, soldiers conscripted to fight in Libya by the Italian colonial army against the nationalist Libyan forces fighting for their freedom from Italy’s colonial rule. Anticipating midcentury thinkers Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, Hailu paints a devastating portrait of Italian colonialism. Some of the most poignant passages of the novel include the awakening of the novel’s hero, Tuquabo, to his ironic predicament of being both under colonial rule and the instrument of suppressing the colonized Libyans.

The novel’s remarkable descriptions of the battlefield awe the reader with mesmerizing images, both disturbing and tender, of the Libyan landscape—with its vast desert sands, oases, horsemen, foot soldiers, and the brutalities of war—uncannily recalled in the satellite images that were brought to the homes of millions of viewers around the globe in 2011, during the country’s uprising against its former leader, Colonel Gaddafi.

Gebreyesus Hailu (1906–1993) was a prominent and influential figure in the cultural and intellectual life of Eritrea during the Italian colonial period and in the post-Italian era in Africa. With a PhD in theology, he was vicar general of the Catholic Church in Eritrea and played several important roles in the Ethiopian government, including that of cultural attaché at the Ethiopian Embassy in Rome, member of the national academy of language, and advisor to the Ministry of Information of the Ethiopian government. Hailu’s novel, The Conscript, is based on a true story of Eritrean conscripts deployed to Libya by the Italians, whom Hailu met on his way to study in Italy.

Ghirmai Negash is a professor of English and African literature at Ohio University. He is the author of A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea and coeditor of Who Needs a Story? His recent publications include articles and essays on Eritrean and South African literatures.

Cover of 'The Conscript'


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