The Last Word on Evil

Snakepit

by Moses Isegawa
Knopf, 259 pp., $24.00

Moses Isegawa
Moses Isegawa; drawing by David Levine

“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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.