Philip Marsden: Journeying among people

Philip Marsden's books have shone a light into the hidden corners of Ethiopian history. Guy Mannes-Abbott is touched by his great affection for the nation

Cries of "Death to Musulman!" rise while drunken fists thump down. As the chorus builds, a man shouts, "No!" Gradually, the narrator realises that it's him and, unable to back down, he insists that "many Muslims have long been friends of the Armenians. Armenians were sheltered by Arabs" during the 1915 genocide.

This scene took place on Republic Day in the early Nineties, on the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan, during the wars marking the Soviet Union's collapse. It's from Philip Marsden's The Crossing Place, a celebration of the Armenians' "fullness with life", as Osip Mandelstam put it. Everyone behaves uncharacteristically, but it reveals why Marsden's quiet, temperamental dissidence is so special.

Marsden won the Thomas Cook Award for his account of "the dissenters and misfits of the Russian fringes" in The Spirit Wrestlers. His trail from Beirut to Armenia – via Bulgaria – preceded this, but Marsden's journeying with the exilic singularity of Armenian culture is unending. Yet it's Ethiopia, "island of dissent", to which he has returned for a third time in 20 years. The Barefoot Emperor (HarperPress, £17.99) is a masterly account of the story of its first Nationalist, Tewodros II. "Too ambiguous" a personage to be cast in bronze, he's become a popular figure in Addis Ababa.

We meet at the Ethiopian Embassy in Kensington, which is hosting an informal book launch. Marsden chats with staff in smooth-flowing Amharic, but British self-deprecations syncopate his sentences – sentences full of steely humility, exemplified by his response to my charge that Tewodros's story may not be his to tell.

"Because I'm not Ethiopian? I think a better charge is that the majority of sources are by Europeans. I mean, you can only use the sources you have! You long for more sources; I've tried to use, as much as possible, the Ethiopian sources and see him in an Ethiopian context. Erm, I feel perfectly qualified... I mean, I responded to it, I knew the context... erm, I just told it as I saw it, you know. Yeah. That's all."

I like Marsden's sincerity and slight abruptness, especially because his judicious crafting of Tewodros's fully Shakespearian life entitles him to indignation. Anyway, it got to the heart of things: "I'm not a historian and I didn't want to write a history. The story is extraordinary, and that's what I wanted to recreate."

Marsden's European sources are "first-hand accounts of being with Tewodros, being in his court, being his prisoner, being rescued... The Ethiopian sources give a sense of Tewodros as a sort of bandit, who emerges on stage as a mythically based figure with an astonishing record of military victory, and this sort of messianic aura about him. This drama; that was what I wanted to try to recreate." There are many other angles and contexts, "but they weren't what excited me about the story which is sort of integral to itself".

The story rehearses the rise of Dejazmach Kassa from his birth in "about 1820" through time as a provincial outlaw in the highlands to his adoption of the mantle of Tewodros II. His early years were spent shaping a modern unified state before its eventual disintegration generated despair. "Now, Ethiopia's a federation and celebrates the diversity." He turns to a small portrait: "That's President Girma, who's an Oromo."

The Barefoot Emperor centres on Tewodros's final retreat, over six months into 1868, to his mountain sanctuary at Meqdela along a "road" carved through gorges. The 150-mile road was needed to transport his home-grown arsenal of big guns. Even critics recognised it as "a monument of dogged and unconquerable resolution".

While it was being built, a British force arrived, intent on recovering a group of Europeans, including a British consul, who had become hostages after some misunderstandings between Tewodros and Queen Victoria. The first British advocate of links to Ethiopia suggested that "it was India, on a smaller scale, but untouched". Then the resources of a global empire were marshalled to build a railway from the Red Sea towards Tewodros's mountain base. Marsden conjures the Desert Storm-like extravagance of it: thousands of men and animals, 350 miles of telegraph wire, 44 elephants and a staggering infrastructure to support it all. The bill was £9 million.

Marsden's compelling narrative is full of gems. The Emperor's own letters appear like elliptical short stories. His last is quoted in full, complementing detailed accounts by the more sympathetic hostages.

"The direct relationships, these extraordinary scenes of them together – they're so poignant. If I'd written a more conventional history, one wouldn't be able to convey that poignance." His voice lights up: "Those two final scenes: you knew he was going to die, he knew he was going to die and that kind of dramatic context – I just couldn't believe it!"

In A Far Country, Marsden wrote that "Ethiopia has parallel histories: her own history and the history of the way she is seen". For centuries a screen for outsiders to project a range of Holy Grails and demons, Ethiopia is "not generous with her secrets". That book introduces a country that embraced Christianity AD330 and rebuffed 19th-century Italian colonialism. It covers Mussolini's brief possession and contact from Rimbaud to Rastafarianism via Evelyn Waugh.

In The Chains of Heaven, Marsden walks through the northern highlands towards Axum, centre of an ancient, pre-Islamic empire. En route are monasteries cut into the mountains or hidden on remote peaks, accessible by ladders and chains. Once there, "in this sea of passionate Christianity", he visits Muslim villages where Hadith records "the first public defence of the faith" by 7th-century refugees.

Tewodros haunts both books and is central to what Marsden meant by Ethiopia's "own" story: "He's a precious part of Ethiopian history and mythology. I'm sure certain people on the Nationalist edge will feel that I've been very unfair on him." It should enlighten those who still refer to the Ethiopian leader as a "mad dog", too. Marsden has dared to tease out complex ambiguities in a man who inspired his successor's unification of the country, the defeat of the Italians in 1896 and territorial grabs in the south. Marsden's Tewodros is a human being, whose murderous excesses are interspersed with moments of insight, but who retained "this kind of personal magnetism – even at the end. I can't say guilty or not guilty, because that's not the point; my object was to tell the story."

I remind him of the concluding words of a Swiss missionary, cannon-builder and eventual hostage called Waldmeier. Marsden reads out the passage affectionately: "'I am fully convinced that this Anglo-Abyssinian war might have been spared by a nobler way of dealing with King Theodore.' You know: great! But," he adds hastily, "that's at the end of a section about Waldmeier, rather than, you know..."

Marsden is delighted that The Crossing Place has just been translated into both Eastern and Western Armenian dialects. "That was much more than a journey, it was very alienating." It also made him as a writer. "You know, places like Armenia and Ethiopia are appealing precisely because of an obliqueness and opacity – you kind of want to get in there." He is drawn to ambiguities and ellipses in both cultures, and has developed a peculiar receptivity in general. It's people and "the why" that motivate him.

"I retain a sort of puerile excitement about the diversity of things, witnessing things, and I think that that's what drives me, rather than indignation about injustice or 'things could be better'." This is said with self-deprecatory compression. "The more you record all this diversity, the less conclusive you can be about it."

Marsden has often written about the figure of the Azmari, whose verses are "the most revealing aspect of Ethiopian culture". Typically, they have a superficial meaning which disguises deeper ones. "'Weighty verses,' goes the Amharic saying, 'warm the insides like warm clothing'." His version of Tewodros's story is a homage to Ethiopia. But the way in which he has told it is a deeper tribute to interior aspects of Ethiopian culture. The Barefoot Emperor "warms the insides" in specifically Ethiopian ways. It's a triumph; a work of entirely unpredicted necessity.

Philip Marsden

Philip Marsden was born in a village in the Mendips in 1961. His first book A Far Country (1990) was about Ethiopia. The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians (1993) followed and won the Somerset Maugham Award. He is best known for The Bronski House (1996), a story of multi-generational Polish exile involving Zofia Ilinska, friend, neighbour and poet. That was followed by an award-winning tour through the Caucasus in The Spirit Wrestlers (1998).

Armenians appear in almost all his books, but his central subject, to which he returned in The Chains of Heaven (2005), is Ethiopia. His first novel, The Main Cages (2002), was set in the 1930s on the coast of Cornwall, where he lives with the writer Charlotte Hobson and their children.

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