Review of Abyssinian Chronicles, by Moses Isegawa (Picador, 2000).
A novel that delves into the depths of Ugandan history, but returns empty-handed.
It is only in the final pages that the title of Abyssinian Chronicles becomes clear. ‘Uganda was a land of false bottoms,’ declares one character, ‘where under every abyss there was another one waiting to ensnare people… Abyssinia was not the ancient land of Ethiopia, but modern Uganda.’ After five-hundred pages of coups, wars, and bloodshed, the exhausted reader is inclined to agree. The bulk of the novel, sometimes described as Uganda’s finest, is set during the dictatorship of Idi Amin and subsequent civil war – it charts that abyss in unflinching detail.
It is also a story of growing up: the petty injustices of boyhood, the shock of sex and, in a quaintly Victorian detour, the japery of boarding school. Except that in this story playing truant leads to the discovery of two dead bodies – murdered, we presume, by Amin’s soldiers. Mugezi, the lively narrator, is alert to parallels between his own life and the life of his nation. His parents are ‘the dictators’; a Catholic seminary relies on ‘brainwashing, schizophrenia, and good old-fashioned dictatorship’.
There are echoes here of the child narrators in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum: precocious, detached, ironic, and entwined with events on a mighty scale. Moses Isegawa’s novel suffers from comparison with those masterpieces, as almost any would. The wit is a little too self-conscious, the language a little overwrought. And unlike Rushdie or Grass, he cannot rely on the historical knowledge of his (non-Ugandan) readers. Florid description is interspersed with odd passages of journalese, as he desperately tries to bring his readers up to speed: at one point, like an agency stringer, he details the clash in Sudan between ‘the Khartoum-based Muslim government’ and ‘the Juba-based Christian-animist rebels’.
If this is an ambitious work, it is also an earthy one. Bodily fluids ooze through the pages: ‘bloody saliva’, a ‘puke-yellow lorry’, a ‘shitty-assed peasant nun’, the ‘red-yellow fluid’ of corpses, the ‘piss-sodden alleyways’ (twice). The scatological alternates with the carnal, and not even the Catholic cathedral is spared: its ‘phallic twin towers’ flirt with the ‘nippled dome’ of its Protestant equivalent.
Isegawa is making mischief here. The ‘Catholic empire’ is one of his targets, embodied in the little despotism of the seminary and its bullying friar, towering over his ‘raggedy-ass, snot-nosed republics’. The Church, with its ‘advancing, conquering, subjugating, manipulating, dictating, ruling’, is isomorphic to the World Bank and IMF, says Isegawa. They too are floored, albeit briefly, by his disdain.
The rambunctious style is unforgiving, but at times it can be powerful. The vitality of downtown Kampala, swirling around the ‘seething, kidney-shaped bowl’ of the Old Taxi Park, is painted in brash strokes. The moments of horror are effectively, if untenderly, rendered: a rapt Mugezi wanders beneath a sky that was ‘alive with ghosts’ after Amin’s coup. Isegawa, who moved to the Netherlands at the age of 27, originally wrote the novel in Dutch. In English translation, his saturated sentences hold all the language they can bear.
Yet Abyssinian Chronicles also disappoints. The characters do not ask for sympathy, and Mugezi’s voice is not quite compelling enough on its own. The story whirls manically but the direction is not always clear. Isegawa fails, just, to tether his tumbling narrative to an anchor in some deeper humanity. Still, as it twirls beyond his grasp, the reader can admire the ambition and the passion of its telling.