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Staring at the Medusa’s Head

When Serenity was three years old, his mother went shopping and never came back. For a long time he used to walk up to tall women who visited his Ugandan village, and say to them, “Welcome home.” He met often with baffled kindness, but finally with an experience of rejection that sent him inside himself, indifferent to other people; this is how he got his nickname. Serenity is the heir to his father’s estates, and he is the father of this novel’s narrator and controlling intelligence: John Chrysostom Noel Muwaabi Mugezi. The name in itself shows his mixed and complicated origins. His mother, an ex-nun, is responsible for the pious part. “Muwaabi,” given by his father, means “prosecutor”; he is to become a lawyer and revenge slights to the family’s honor and prosperity. “Mugezi,” also given by Serenity, means “brilliant, intelligent,” and it is the name he chooses to keep when “the time came to scrap the ballast of my nominal encumbrance.” To the people around him, Mugezi will not be known for modesty; to the reader, he will not be known for his snappy phrasing.

The ex-nun had struggled hard to protect her virginity, and vomited copiously and daily throughout her pregnancy. In this novel origins are suspect and corrupt; the generative function is risky, contaminated. A burst uterus, a diseased penis, and freakishly swollen testicles decorate the early pages. Guests at the wedding of Mugezi’s parents leave behind “mountains of shit and lakes of vomit,” which the female guests decree are omens of fecundity. The book seems determined to wear its nastiness lightly; the tone is urbane and half-amused, as if the grown-up Mugezi is raising an eyebrow at the circumstances of his early life. The reader has some idea of what lies ahead—civil war, AIDS—and thinks it might be bearable if this tone is sustained. The first impression is of powerful narrative drive and formidable authorial control.

This is Moses Isegawa’s first novel. Born in Kampala in 1963, he is now a Dutch citizen. His book is an epic account of thirty years of Ugandan history, and in the Netherlands, where it was first published, it has been hailed as a classic of postcolonial literature. Isegawa has been spoken of as another Rushdie, another García Márquez, another Ben Okri, another V.S. Naipaul; in fact, think of any male writer who is off-white or comes from a hot place, and Isegawa is possibly another one. The sneaky neocolonialism implicit in this form of praise seems to have escaped the group of naive gushers responsible for it.

And yet it’s hard not to think that, patronizing as it is, it’s the form of praise for which the author is angling. He is keen to establish his magic-realist credentials. Migrants return to the village as “lacuna’d ghosts” and the narrator’s uncle Kawayida is a “wizard” whose stories are “open-ended, game to all kinds of endings and interpretations.” If this sounds self-conscious—and it is—the early part of the book generates enough strangeness and narrative excitement to make the reader assent to any claims the author is making for himself. The extended family—some members Christian, some Muslim, some monogamous, and some with a retinue of wives—meet at “weddings, funerals and when Muhammad Ali fights took place.” Through depictions of individuals, Isegawa shapes up a portrait of an energetic, pluralistic society, containing all types of contradictions, subject to all sorts of strains, and in the process of rapid change. Though Uncle Kawayida’s occupation may sound mundane (he is a meter reader for the Ugandan National Energy Board) he brings back to the village stories of urban crisis—of wife-beating, illegal abortion, fighting, thieving, devil worshipers, and football hooligans.

When Serenity gets a job in the city, the narrator stays behind to help his grandmother, the village midwife. His role is partly that of assistant, partly that of mascot. He listens in at her prenatal consultations and helps her gather herbs. Of fifty babies born, ten die. There are four maternal deaths. Images of a monstrous birth-process will come to dominate the novel. The young Mugezi fantasizes about his mother’s excrement and about her menstrual blood. When he grows up, he judges women by whether they offer his member a tight fit. He is briefly infatuated with a woman called Jo (who turns out to be his half-sister) and praises her as “one super-tight woman, the tightest I was ever to encounter.” Later, in Holland, he buys the services of a prostitute, and tells us, “In the village that got wiped away by the war, men would have called her a bucket; she was so loose, there was simply no traction at all.” Catastrophic fates will overtake many of the novel’s personnel, but it is the women over whom Isegawa lingers. There is gang rape, a woman tortured by having a snake thrust inside her clothes, a girl flogged on her genitals by a nun; another nun, “Sister Bison,” dehumanized by the act of coitus, looks out on the world with “lust-glazed nunly eyes.” The most ferociously misogynistic projection—and also the novel’s greatest success—is Mugezi’s mother, the former Sister Peter, more familiarly known as “Padlock.”

It is not until he goes to live in the city, at the age of twelve or so, that Mugezi is exposed to the full fury of Padlock’s psychopathology. Sister Peter was thrown out of her convent for beating children in fits of rage, and makes the children of her marriage greet her each morning on bended knee. For a look or word out of place, the children—numerous, despite Padlock’s prohibition of sex on Sundays and Holy Days—are beaten with guava canes. The weals on Mugezi’s flesh match the “red marks of academic excellence” he finds on his schoolbooks. At the family bungalow, he lives in a world of ordure. Padlock puts him in charge of cleaning up the younger children, and throughout the book his brothers and sisters will be referred to as his “shitters.” His task is never-ending, it seems; the grown-up world will bring him wider opportunities for disgust.

In 1971, just before Mugezi’s departure for the city, Idi Amin had overthrown Milton Obote and seized power in a military coup. He had given “eighteen reasons for the coup, among them corruption, detention without trial, lack of freedom of speech and economic mismanagement of the country.” In the village celebrations that followed, the hut of Mugezi’s grandmother was burned down, with grandmother inside it. Far from holding this against Amin, the child Mugezi imagines the dictator as his personal bodyguard, his patron, his guardian angel. “He was a realist…. He answered love with love, hate with hate, war with war…. He was reprisal itself.” Mugezi sees his parents as two dictators, violent and unpredictable despots, and he has to become their wily, devious subject. “I was determined to become a very costly, very destructive victim.” The servant-child indulges in revenge fantasies each day while he prepares the sweet potatoes. He dreams of giving Padlock rat poison or putting a snake in her bed, or denouncing her as an Obote sympathizer, so that she and Serenity will be taken away and tortured. Adopting her own bloody religiosity to comfort himself, he imagines he sees not Jesus but Padlock on the cross, lacerated by whips, streaming with gore.

Isegawa opens the second section of the novel with an epic set-piece, a description of the city of Kampala set on its seven hills. It reminds the reader of the vast establishing shot with which Saint Ignatius begins the second week of the “Spiritual Exercises”: that panorama “of all those on the face of the earth in all their variety of garments and gestures.” Saint Ignatius, however, demands that our imaginations be put to use; the son of Padlock does not think we have any to employ. As ruthless and thoroughgoing as his monster mother, he forces open our mouths and makes us swallow his nasty medicine, image after image predicated on disgust. Here, too, he produces a series of forced images and intolerable sentences:

The house seemed to contract and dilate like a birth canal, awash with the smell of impending disaster…. I lifted the sheet of false security to peek at the contractions and dilations of impending doom, but lacking the telepathic capacity to drill through the opaqueness of despotic conspiracy, I failed to read the signs. I took refuge in the kitchen, doing my best to bury my trepidation in the gurgling noises of cooking food, and to fight the guilty feeling of unpunished transgression with the comforting fire of the cooking stove. It was all in vain.

Recall, if you will: this young writer has been compared to Rushdie and García Márquez. In reading these two masters, it is possible to feel that one will be trapped forever in the same paragraph. But it will usually be an interesting paragraph, with many mansions. An Isegawa sentence can breed a similar feeling of entrapment, yet display all the structural sophistication of a ramshackle cattle pen.

Why has he chosen to write like this? The President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, speaks in his autobiography of the frustration of communication in a land where there are four language groups and, among the majority Bantu speakers, a proliferation of dialects which are “mostly mutually intelligible” if you listen carefully. Then there is English; then there is the language of image and symbol that everyone can understand. It is the latter that Museveni has chosen to speak to his voters, developing his vision of the future through parables which feature couch grass, the millstone, the banana-bark funnel for channeling water. It seems perverse that a politician should give his vote for transparency and simplicity, and a novelist elect to clutter his pages with polysyllables. No doubt it is naive to suppose Isegawa wants an audience in the country of his birth; and perhaps he is simply treating us to the idiom he thinks Mugezi would prefer. At the seminary Mugezi attends, he decides to take an interest in “this literature mystery.” It is not easy to understand what literature is, “but I did my level best and used my Longman dictionary a lot. Somebody named me Longman Dick, because he claimed that I handled that book more often than I did my penis.” Isegawa’s failure to separate himself from Longman Dick is a misjudgment that sabotages the book.

At the seminary, Mugezi profits from his early lessons in resisting oppression. The bursar is his enemy and he smears his car with shit. Bullying is commonplace and the pupils are systematically starved. (Museveni, in the autobiography mentioned earlier, says that he entered his high school at thirteen weighing eighty-two pounds and left two years later weighing sixty-five pounds.) All the same, Mugezi takes to his studies with enthusiasm. This is fortunate for the intentions of the author, who has him read history and find it is “whitewashed.” Black people have been erased from the record. This is a fair point, but it is hardly original, and the boy’s discovery of it seems entirely manipulated. History, in fact, is the author’s big problem. Most of us in the West have our images of the big African dictators, grandiose in their flyblown corruption, erratic and greedy and grossly violent: the “Toad Kings” of whom Wole Soyinka speaks. But we are unlikely to be familiar with Ugandan history in detail, and when Isegawa remember this he breaks off to deliver a graceless lecture. Sometimes he tries to integrate these lectures into the narrative by putting inverted commas around them. Here, Serenity’s friend Hajj concludes a long speech about the position of the Christian churches and their relation to Amin’s government:

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