“Snakepit” is right! Moses Isegawa, author of Abyssinian Chronicles (1998), has set his strong new novel in Uganda between 1970 and 1979, the precise period of Idi Amin Dada’s ghastly reign of terror in that country. It is more a study in ethical blankness than it is of active, absolute evil. The characters with whom the novel is concerned make up an advantaged group—they are well educated and well connected socially. They spend their lives in an impossibly extreme setting and their individual fates enact instructive variations on the consequences of passivity and careless complicity in the face of established evil.
This is a grim book, disquieting in many ways. It leaves the reader with an overload of brutal images. It raises questions about the protocols an author should observe in fictionalizing historical fact. It challenges the reader to interpret and assess, without reflexive impatience or indictment, the consciousnesses on display in the story. (We are given Tolstoyan access to just about everybody’s thoughts and feelings.) And finally, the reader should be prepared for afterthoughts—I had them, and they appear below—on the literary approach to evil in general, and in particular the drawbacks involved in a near-parodic, or hyperbolic, literary approach of the kind Isegawa employs.
The mass-murdering buffoon Idi Amin died not long ago after twenty-four years of cosseted asylum in Libya and then Saudi Arabia, where his devotion to Islam was obviously felt to outweigh his crimes against humanity. Time and inattention have softened his image. Fela Kuti, the Nigerian pop/ political singing star, praised Amin for his jabs at the West (like offering Nixon a holiday in Uganda during the Watergate crisis), and Roy Innis induced his now-decadent Congress of Racial Equality to honor the dictator. But in his cruelties Idi Amin was Caligulan. After seizing power in 1971, and expelling, for starters, thousands of Ugandan Asians, he undertook a campaign of imprisonment, torture, and murder that eventually cost between 300,000 and 500,000 lives, out of a population of ten million.
He was initially helped into power by the British and Israelis. When they turned against him, he proved adept at finding alternate sponsors—the Russians, the Saudis, the Libyans. Covert support from Britain and America, directed to his secret services, continued until very late in his reign. An imprudent grab at Tanzanian territory aroused Julius Nyerere’s fury against Amin, and Tanzanian regular forces, with some help from Ugandan dissidents, overthrew the tyrant in 1979. The country was in a state of economic collapse.
As Snakepit opens, Bat Katanga, just having concluded his postgraduate studies in mathematics at Cambridge University, is back in his homeland of Uganda and on the hunt for a high-level civil service position. His quest has been stimulated by the recent news that Idi Amin has expelled 50,000 Indians (obnoxious middlemen, in Amin’s eyes) and 180,000 Africans from other countries. After a terrifying interview with the head of the Ministry of Power and Communications, General Samson Bazooka Ondogar, who is also the chief of a paramilitary security force with a very broad mandate, he becomes Bureaucrat Two at the ministry.
General Bazooka is ambitious and utterly without scruples. His Anti-Smuggling Unit often finds itself in conflict with a rival secret intelligence organization, the Bureau of State Security, controlled by Robert Ashes, a sinister British associate of the new dictator, Amin. Bazooka, who both distrusts and relies on the talented technocrat Katanga, assigns an undercover operative, Victoria Kawiya, whom he borrows from the State Research Bureau, to seduce and monitor Bat. Victoria is a former lover of Bazooka’s. Her family has been ruined and driven into rural exile in retaliation for their objections to their daughter’s liaison with Bazooka. Victoria snares Bat, then falls for him. They move in together and produce a daughter. Two points on what will become a deadly triangle have been established.
Life at the top unfolds prosperously but uglily. Bat has everything, including a villa, a fast car, and, shortly, a new woman. Despite the fact that Victoria has borne their child, Bat dismisses her and his daughter. His new woman is Babit. Victoria is incensed and begins plotting against Babit. Behind the scenes, power is shifting. The Machiavellian British expatriate Robert Ashes, who is at Amin’s right hand, maneuvers to take over Bazooka’s anti-smuggling forces, making a deadly enemy of the general, who retains his powerful position in Amin’s cabinet.
Bat and his educated friends toy with the idea of exile but reject it. Bat sees the Byzantine murderousness deepening around him. His attitude is a combination of fatalism and opportunism: “I have no intention of going into exile. I want to die right here in this country but in due course. I want dictators to come and go, leaving me behind to run new ministries.” He has been the recipient of a large cash bribe from Saudi business interests.
The Saudi bribe comes to the attention of Robert Ashes, now a colonel. It creates difficulties between Ashes and Bazooka, who, in annoyance, turns on the hapless Bat. Bat is disappeared. He is tortured, forced to commit murder, tortured again, kept incommunicado for weeks. Full-scale underground war between Ashes and Bazooka breaks out. Ashes had been a secret partner in Copper Motors, skimming cash from imported spare parts sales. The expatriate owner of Copper Motors had cut off payments to Ashes, infuriating him. Ashes had tortured and murdered both his partner and his partner’s wife. Bazooka, an associate of the murdered Copper Motors owner, had sanctioned violent reprisals against Ashes. Bat’s family searches fruitlessly for the missing Bat.
Finally, Bat’s family solicits a Cambridge college friend of Bat’s, who is now an MP, to intervene. His intervention is successful, and Bat and Babit, after Bat’s release, travel to England for a month of recuperation. Amazingly (to this reader) they decide to return to Uganda, to marry. Bat changes ministries, moving to Finance. Before he can marry Babit, she is murdered and mutilated by Bat’s former lover, Victoria, who escapes the scene of the crime. Bat is distraught.
The general security situation worsens drastically. Open hostilities between Ashes and Bazooka are now underway. Mutinies and spot rebellions are occurring. Bat’s brother has joined the underground resistance and commenced a bombing campaign, one of whose unintended victims is Bazooka’s present Wife Number One. She is gravely maimed.
Grieving over Babit, Bat goes on another holiday outside Uganda, this time to the US. This is a puzzling sequence, a sort of Nighttown phantasmagoria featuring lurid inventions about Idi Amin’s earlier career, and puzzling also in that once again Bat—despite the fact that he is at risk for having donated money to his brother, the rebel, for a pirate radio station that never came into being—chooses not to stay abroad. He returns to Uganda in time for a last insult: Bazooka has rigged a not guilty verdict for Victoria and her accomplices.
All’s misalliance, as Robert Lowell once put it. The country is in chaos. The Ashes–Bazooka war ends: Bazooka shoots himself in the head; Ashes goes into exile in South Africa. The Tanzanians arrive. Amin flees. Under the new regime, Bat, again, finds high-level civil service work. The story ends there.
Isegawa tells his story at a gallop. Seven years pass in a flash. His style is unusual and potent. And it is disarming, in part for its sheer bluster. He makes defiant use of personification (angry sky, moody lakes), cliché (“She felt she had known him all her life”), and nineteenth-century capitalization (the Professor, Big Bossman, Bureaucrat Two). There is an insistent frankness on physical matters—the long exclusion of farting from the novel in English is here resoundingly undone. In his determination to squeeze out the histrionic potential in his scenes, he crosses over, often enough, into burlesque:
There were weddings which lasted weeks, as the celebrations moved from the husband’s family to the bride’s family and back, attracting carousers like flies on rotting fruit. Eating, as a sport, flourished, and no wedding was complete without a group of men vying to put away amazing heaps of offal, roasted lamb and goat, gigantic Nile Perch fish cooked whole, and huge platters of cassava, sweet potatoes and matooke. The sight of gluttons masquerading as competitive eaters and ending up drooling, vomiting, and getting their stomachs pumped, became part of the spectacle.
In constructing his narrative, Isegawa is deft at telegraphically downloading dense personal histories for his characters, major and minor. And even in very compressed action passages, he finds ways to illuminate salient qualities of his characters:
He [General Bazooka] kept an eye on things when he was awake; he barked at servants and looked at his children’s exercise books. He was happy to learn that his favourite son did not like school and did not perform well. He talked to him about the importance of the army and the chances he stood as the son of a general. He showed him different guns, told him heroic stories and made him promise to enlist as soon as he finished primary school. Secondary school he could do in the army. The boy was happy to hear that his father was on his side. The other children were less enthusiastic, but he believed he would get them eventually.
The end result is a text that is gaudy, heedless, conversational, and that has a satisfyingly weighty feel.
The social portrait Isegawa presents so vividly is disconcerting. This is an account of people living in the presence of ongoing evil, and finding various levels of accommodation with that evil. Powerfully but with restraint, Isegawa presents the uniform ethical blankness of the book’s main characters. Except for periods when fear and terror and personal hazard overtake these people, the novel maintains a flat affect. Or, more accurately, the flat affect is interrupted by short-lived, very short-lived, surges of sentimental feeling for a lost lover or child.
As to motivation, careerism pur-sued beyond the boundaries of self-preservation would apply in pretty much any society. Bat Katanga returns to Uganda in order to take advantage of the career opportunities opened up by the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians. Part of his job description is to protect and promote the prospects of a man he knows to be a murderous thug. The one character who fully enters the resistance to Amin does so only after losing his position in a spy unit controlled by Amin. This character, Tayari, Bat’s brother, is from the wrong tribal background to remain in Amin’s employ. And Tayari further demystifies his affiliation with the resistance: “His journey down this dangerous path had begun simply: with sibling rivalry. All he had ever wanted was to beat his brother and prove his worth.” Intelligent people proceed blindly, turning aside from escape and exile even at the direst moments. Bat’s first lover revenges herself on her replacement by mutilation and murder. There are clearly no redemptive choices, no epiphanies. The overall feeling is nonjudgmental, odd. Isegawa does not excoriate along the lines of L.-F. Céline, or Balzac in Père Goriot. But the mood is not tout pardonner, either. Part of the oddness comes from the fact that this social portrait has been rendered in the medium of an often breezy, rococo prose:
Bat installed himself on the hundredth floor of the Omniscient Hotel, where there was no day or night, where one washed one’s face with clouds in the morning and dried onself with the legs of the ubiquitous sun…. He could look out for miles and feel like a bird flying over the lakes, or dodging in and out of the buildings and clouds.
…The fight against the Mau Mau was fun, but there was no big money in it…. [Ashes] took his time and made one big haul. A kilo of uncut diamonds landed in his hands after a year’s planning, and then there was a monstrous shoot-out. He was shot in the leg, and he crawled and limped past corpses, and wandered for four delirious days. At one time, he even vowed to stop with adventure-seeking. A white farmer picked him up in his tractor, and later he was flown to South Africa, where he fell in love with Cape Town: its magnificence, its history, its wine.
Snakepit succeeds as a reiteration of the theme of the banality of evil as it expresses itself in the lives of the enablers, who are in the second tier. Even as it succeeds, its impact is weakened by the distancing that Isegawa’s prose style imposes. But beyond that, the reader develops a yearning, strains, almost, for a closer approach to Amin, to the nature of his power. Amin is offstage throughout the novel. The prime mover, the prime monster, is not present. This may be tantamount to asking for a different book from Isegawa, but I am sure other readers will feel this yearning to apprehend the dark star perturbing this universe of souls.
In any case, with Amin out of view, we must approach the nature of his evil indirectly, through the reactions of the two characters closest to him—General Bazooka and Robert Ashes. Bazooka is not much help. He is a familiar type, a power-mad, greedy, conscienceless brute. In differing degrees, people like Bazooka are fixtures in every extreme autocracy. But the Ashes character represents a missed opportunity. He is of course based on Astles, the loathsome and enigmatic British expatriate, court jester to Idi Amin. Isegawa has fiddled with his alter-Astles, but not to any great effect. The connection between Amin and the real Astles was murky, conflicted, with Astles in favor, out of favor (prison, torture), and in favor again. Isegawa has Ashes favored by Amin throughout. And he has Ashes escape scot-free after Amin’s fall, whereas Astles was imprisoned for six years under the successor regime.
The true nature of the bond between Astles and Amin is still a puzzle. What Astles might have been up to behind the scenes with different Western intelligence agencies is not guessed at in Isegawa’s book, although it should be said that in general he gives a reasonably clear account of the clandestine international politics of Amin’s reign, even if he is a little light on the American role, which manifested elements of opposition and complicity, both. Amin’s particular evil power remains elusive.
Moses Isegawa grew up in Uganda and emigrated to the Netherlands in 1990. He is now a Dutch citizen. This is his second pass at Uganda under Idi Amin. Snakepit is set exactly in the years of Amin’s rule, and in its concentration on upper-stratum characters it differs from Isegawa’s first novel, a Bildungsroman, Abyssinian Chronicles, which runs from the Sixties through the Eighties and describes the fate of a young man from the provinces and the members of his extended family. This is a sprawling, vital piece of work. Its characters endure Amin from a greater physical distance than do the characters in Snakepit. In this book, too, there is a sense of muting, or distancing, of Amin’s evil, but it arises less from this fact of physical distance than from evocations of an inescapable cruelty manifest in the society at large. What Isegawa delivers in Abyssinian Chronicles is an exhaustive and unsparing study of a peasant family translated into a city existence. The affliction that was Amin passes over them like other afflictions, becomes only one in a series of political tribulations and includes the two rounds of rule of the repugnant Milton Obote. And while the political afflictions, in their acute phases of violent repression and guerrilla war, are devastating enough, the daily level of normal suffering flowing chiefly from family politics and customs is so high that this foreground of misery eats away at the background.
I wonder if any white writer would dare to offer a picture of an African society like this one, so riven with bitter rivalry (personal and social and tribal and regional), so cursed with beatings, betrayals, abandonments, offhand criminality, craziness, and untrammeled nastiness. It’s bad, and the reader can fully understand the amoral but crafty hero concluding that the best thing to do would be to get the hell out. Isegawa, in Abyssinian Chronicles, startlingly invites the reader to perceive an undeclared moral continuity between Hobbesian daily life at the popular level and the occasional mad exercises of power by Ugandans who manage to seize the levers of the state. This relentlessly counteridyllic picture of character and interpersonal relations in an African society seems inter alia to be raising the question of what part cultural inheritances, separate from the legacies of colonialism—folkways—play in the tragedies unfolding in modern Africa. It is possible that his picture serves obliquely to ease the dismay with which ex-imperial Western hearts contemplate the trainwreck of contemporary Africa.
The novel as a form has always had its problems in negotiating the extremes of human evil. This is a fact with a long and complicated history, but, to put it bluntly, mostly novels want to be good, to be hopeful, and absolute human evil shakes the foundations of the pleasant venue in which the long, secular colloquium on human value—which is the novel’s burden—takes place. Writers understandably find themselves trying different maneuvers, trying out different contexts for evil that will allow them to approach it more closely—to make use of it.*
In Abyssinian Chronicles and Snakepit, two populous novels in which no heroes can be found, Moses Isegawa has memorialized a great evil of his own time and place. About this, he may have told us as much as anyone could.
A very close approach to the evil of Idi Amin is essayed in Giles Foden’s 1998 novel The Last King of Scotland, whose narrator is the Scottish personal physician to the dictator. This is a valuable book, a good companion to the two Isegawas, with Amin’s actual history expertly interleaved. But it relies on an explanation of Amin’s power, his demonic charisma, that is not entirely convincing, especially in its peculiar hold over a thoroughly modern Scottish doctor. ↩