Moses Isegawa
Moses Isegawa; drawing by David Levine

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:

“…This very year, the Protestant Church is going to celebrate its centenary. Amin and his henchmen must be worried to death about the implications, both local and foreign, of such a big event.”

“Exiles and other forces using the chance to destabilize the country, eh?” Serenity suggested.

“Yes,” Hajj replied grimly, his beard swaying morosely.

Dialogue like this makes the characters into puppets. Only the monstrous Padlock, by her excesses of vigor, seems to have a life of her own. Isegawa exercises as tight a control over his characters as does Rohinton Mistry in A Fine Balance. But his control is exercised without affection, and it is a problem, in such a diffuse narrative, that he has to carry Mugezi everywhere he wants to go. At first, Mugezi’s frank boyhood gaze is appealing. (We can hardly blame him for being taken in by Amin, when the British and Israeli governments made the same mistake.) Later the reader applauds Isegawa’s courage in sticking by a narrator who becomes progressively less likable as he becomes less vulnerable. The jaunty tone of the early narrative becomes chilly, strained, and unconvincing, as the world offers Mugezi even more horrors than his infant imagination had contained. When he returns to his home village, disillusioned with Amin, and having outgrown his quarrels with his parents, he sees that a dubious, raucous kind of affluence has taken over the newer parts of the settlement. The older areas are desolate; the sites of his childhood are given over to the snake, the bat, and the termite:

The bottom seemed to fall out of my bowels. I no longer belonged here. I had to find a new center of existence. Oppressed by the weight of the past and the brutality of change, I walked away.

Isegawa could, with profit, have ended his story there, before it grew too big for its structure to sustain; and begun a sequel, with a new structure. From the seminary chapters onward, the book becomes less manageable, for both the writer and the reader. A surer method might have been to confine the story to childhood years, or to take it up at the point where, much later, Mugezi leaves his native country for Europe. Either choice would have made a substantial and important novel. Still, overambition is necessary in fiction; mere achievement can be left to journalists. Perhaps the only real misjudgment in narrative strategy is to send Mugezi’s father, Serenity, on pilgrimage to Rome, and on to Jerusalem. The novel can’t take the strain of moving so far from home; the writer’s imagination is beaten thin. An outburst of eloquence against the Pope, “this monstrous armadillo,” doesn’t come off, though the author’s detestation of the Roman Church and his contempt for it are made clear throughout the novel. Its power, he affirms, is built on murder and greed, and the Pope’s “demeanor oozed with the contradiction of preaching sadistic negation of the body while bedecking oneself in gold.” It is in these pilgrimage sections that, more than ever, Isegawa gives way to his tendency to spell out what should be embedded in the text for the reader to find. Serenity “wished he could…be mythologized.”

It is plain that Isegawa wishes it too. For him, a myth is something to be dragged into full daylight, laid on the line, explicated to the point of exhaustion. His book is in fact a realist narrative, dressed up in ornate language and overblown conceits, an earthbound machine with a few outboard devices designed to make it airborne: the more devices he bolts on, the heavier it becomes. Nothing in his text eludes our first comprehension. Nothing invites our second glance. It progresses; it does not shift its shape. It has no transfigurative power. There is no switch or interplay between different levels of reality—rather, there are ragged flashes of surrealism ripping into the narrative’s credibility. In the end, perhaps it is against Mugezi’s realism that the reader revolts; he is a self-server, a survivor, a man with an itchy palm, too flawed and mistrusted to carry the story. He is not an unreliable narrator, but he comes close to being a contemptible one.

Shifting backward in time, he has educated us in his family history and so in the history of the nation. He gives us a persuasive account of the African as a spectator, excluded from power and even visibility; Mugezi’s grandfather tells him, “The old house built on British supremacy, Indian collaboration and African tribal strife did not belong to anyone. Nobody felt safe in it.” Little sympathy is spared for the dispossessed Asians driven out by Amin, leaving their “curried curses” on the air. Isegawa keeps on the right side of frank racism by attributing the negative sentiments about Asians to Serenity, who has distrusted shopkeepers ever since his mother took her fateful excursion. But in the end, whatever the transactions between victim and despot, however the rights and wrongs are distributed, Mugezi’s desire is not for justice, but for himself to emulate and surpass the despots. The kind of power he dreams of protects one from reality. “…The ideal power…shielded one from the ghastly sight of dying babies, emaciated adults and stinking geriatrics. This was the ideal power that let one go to bed at night smelling roses and wake up in the morning unbothered by anything.”

The later part of the novel deals with how Mugezi becomes a schoolteacher, and then himself a corrupt agent of the state. It deals with guerrilla warfare in an area of danger which—we are not surprised to learn—has the habit of “contracting and expanding like a birth canal.” The narrative encompasses food and fuel shortages, failed water supplies, electricity blackouts, kidnappings, murders, looting, arson, and what Isegawa calls “torture chamber excesses” (as opposed to the restrained behavior one usually finds in a torture chamber). Mugezi becomes rich through running the Boom-boom Brewery—“People loaded with untold woes would drink practically any-thing”—and finally attaches himself to an aid project and leaves Africa for Amsterdam, where he is expected to raise money for his sponsors by projecting those images of Africa with which the famine posters have made us familiar.

What follows are the among the most angry and cogent scenes of the novel. “The worst in international beggary, image pillage and necrophilic exploitation waited for my seal of approval.” The novel may have fallen to pieces, but the polemic burns on the page. Speaking of the agency which has brought him to Europe, Mugezi says,

I tried to place myself in the shoes of their so-called donors. If someone came to me with those pictures, especially the ones with children twisted like constipated chicks, I would have asked them why they had waited that long to act. But then the business was run on expedience and was meant not to prevent but to patch up festering wounds, with flimsy, pus-soaked bandages.

Isegawa’s anger rinses the eyes clear. The targets of his scorn are the agencies and the media who project images of Africa as a hopeless continent given over to anarchy, a place where nothing will ever get better because its people are weak and dependent and its rulers uniformly malign. His whole book is a struggle to present us with a picture of a society where people struggle to survive and even prosper, with great ingenuity and against great odds. Their methods are not fair, not democratic, not particularly civilized, and not pretty to read about, but they are people performing the essential work of survival; and in this enterprise, Isegawa is their eloquent spokesman. Perhaps his clumsy borrowing of fantastic technique is not surprising; it is hard not to imagine that Abyssinian Chronicles is written to reflect a European publisher’s idea of what an African story ought to be like. Perhaps publishers and readers, like charity donors, require prodigies of horror and strangeness before they will open their purses; each circumstance must be more bizarre than the last. Consider how fact and fable grow together, and see how hard it is to pull them apart: the West has opened its purse recently to a child born in a tree. Rosita Mabuiango, aged six months, is now the beneficiary of a trust fund; it happened that there was a TV camera present when her mother Carolina went into labor in March 2000, as she climbed to save herself from the rising floodwaters in Mozambique. A paramedic lowered from a South African helicopter cut the cord, and saved their lives; now Carolina and Rosita have toured Britain and the US, and have visited the White House, and some churches, and some shopping malls. Rosita, it is reported, owns half-a-dozen Barbie dolls; Carolina has gotten some designer clothes. The disaster, which affected some 10 percent of the population of Mozambique, has been personalized, sanitized, and made fit for our gaze.

The most interesting question raised by Isegawa’s book may be, in fact, this question of gaze, of regard. His characters see “history writing itself in front of their eyes”; but how far can they process what they see? How shall we understand atrocity, in view of our impulse to look away? Is it proper to stare at the eyeless dead? In one of the book’s most vivid and yet most self-conscious passages, Mugezi sees, ten kilometers from the capital city, fruit stands at the side of the road with human skulls set out in neat lines, with shin and thigh bones stacked behind them. Sometimes, as a reader of his book, you feel like a customer at one of these fruit stalls. Traveling in a war area, Mugezi describes himself as “a tourist” and admits that he doesn’t want to think about what he is seeing. This may be the narrator’s coping strategy, but it puts the reader in the role of tourist too; too often the book delivers only flat reportage, and as horrors accumulate, the narrative seems affectless rather than detached, as if the writer does not know how to play out, through the text, the emotions of fear and dread that his recitation must arouse.

Isegawa acknowledges his difficulty. “The drama of war had ended, leaving behind the harrowing task of putting it into words for later use.” He fears that survivors from the heart of the war zones are editing their own experiences: “We always second-guessed our audience and told them what they wanted to hear, or what would cause the least damage or best enhance our image.” Meanwhile “the dead were lying just beyond the road, waiting to be discovered and buried or displayed.” In spelling out his indignation about the Western attitude toward aid, he calls our attention to the pornography of pity. In so doing he raises concerns about the morality of his writing, and our reading. Nevertheless, he has chosen not to bury, but display: it is an admirable choice, even if the immaturity of his technique delivers, too often, a blood-stained puppet show which some readers will leave before the climax.

For fiction ought to make us able to look. It is a justification for choosing the novel form to address history, that through fiction we can be endowed with peripheral vision, or enabled to peer through a crack in the structure of reality. Whether in fiction or drama or reportage, to stare is the prerogative of genius. When in the second section of If This Is a Man, Primo Levi describes his induction into Auschwitz, he tells us, simply and terribly, “I had never seen old men naked.” We have permission, for a moment, to gaze before we turn away, appalled by full knowledge: our aged fathers stripped, indecent, impotent. Shakespeare in King Lear puts out Gloucester’s eyes on stage: he enacts his blinding in our full view and challenges us to keep looking. Lesser artists—and the great artists mostly—proceed by indirection. This is why the theater has wings—so that the beheadings and violations can occur at the side. Isegawa’s fiction has no wings, for there is nothing left to happen there. It has no peripheral vision: for there is an angle where vision and imagination meet, and the writer must abdicate some control to the reader, and must trust him, and not negate his capacities from line to line.

Perhaps it is Calvino, in Six Memos For the Next Millennium, who best suggests the way forward. In his essay “Lightness,” he considers the myth of Perseus, who conquers the Medusa by indirection, “who does not turn his gaze on the face of the gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield.” Perseus then keeps her terrible head in a bag, a weapon for use in dire necessity. Only when the situation is unnegotiable will he grip the monster by her snaky locks and use her to petrify his enemy. We must, as imaginative artists, keep negotiations open, and not unveil the Medusa’s head too soon. Otherwise the art of fiction will degenerate to lapidary inscription: cemetery simplicities, or obscene graffiti on crumbling walls.

This Issue

November 30, 2000