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 …

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