If upon reading the first sentence of Moses Isegawa’s debut novel, Abyssinian Chronicles, in an Amsterdam bookstore a few years back, I quickly re-read it a few times and committed it to memory, it was because it reminded me so strongly of the sunny afternoon in Jerusalem twenty years earlier when my father recited to me what he considered the greatest opening line of any novel ever. It was the famously whiz-bang first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Unfortunately, that was far from the last time my father would recite García Márquez’s line to me, and it loses a bit of suspense with each go-round. But it remains a great model for opening sentences–the movie-trailer temporal hopscotch, the exotic locales, the ambiguous figure of the father at the center of an implied mystery. I’ve even used the model myself, occasionally.
The leadoff of Abyssinian Chronicles– “Three final images flashed across Serenity’s mind as he disappeared into the jaws of the colossal crocodile: a rotting buffalo with rivers of maggots and armies of flies emanating from its cavities; the aunt of his missing wife, who was also his longtime lover; and the mysterious woman who had cured his childhood obsession with tall women”–was a naked homage to García Márquez. (Serenity, we learn at the beginning of the next sentence, is the narrator’s father. How the narrator might be privy to what was going through his father’s mind at the moment he was being eaten is typical of the book’s occasional inconsistencies in point of view, which are either lazy or ingenious–it’s hard to decide.) In interviews in the late 1990s, Isegawa professed a desire to do for African writers what García Márquez had done for Latin American ones. Opening up with such a blatant tribute was a daring move: Isegawa was tying his anxieties of influence around his forehead and coming out swinging. But it worked. In 1997, when he dropped off his unsolicited manuscript at the Dutch publishing house De Bezige Bij, Isegawa was an unknown Ugandan émigré living in the nondescript planned town of Beverwijk. Three years later, he was the next big thing in postcolonial literature.
Having won himself an audience, Isegawa proceeded to scandalize it. The hero of Abyssinian Chronicles, Mugezi, spends the book’s final chapters heaping abuse on the patronizing reverse racism of the left-wing Dutch society that takes him in, and Isegawa apparently shared Mugezi’s critique. In interviews, he attacked the media and his public for expecting him to represent the African viewpoint; denounced Western development aid as a scheme to sink African countries further into debt; and characterized the Dutch welfare state as a way of bribing the population into political quiescence. In 2001 he published (in Holland only) a semi-fictional essay, Two Chimpanzees, which alleged that AIDS had been deliberately spread in Africa by the US government, and that humanitarian organizations’ vaccination programs in Africa had destroyed the continent’s immune system. Isegawa’s enormous literary talent began to be overshadowed by his politics.
It has been four years since Abyssinian Chronicles came out in the United States, and Isegawa’s second book, Snakepit, is at last being published. The delay might seem to signal a case of sophomore nerves, but in fact Snakepit was published in Holland in 1999. (Isegawa is in the odd position of having his books translated and published in Dutch before they ever appear in the original English.) Why the long wait? Obviously, Isegawa is a bigger phenomenon in Holland than in America. But Snakepit also seems a particularly risky book to publish. Abyssinian Chronicles was a grand, playful, exotic ramble, a violent picaresque novel in the spectacular setting of Idi Amin-era Uganda. Its bitter characterizations of familial conflict and civil war were sweetened by affectionate character portraits and sympathetic interior dialogues. Snakepit returns to Amin’s Uganda, but it has all of the earlier book’s bitterness and little of its sweetness. As its title suggests, this is a slimy, tortuous, poisonous book.
Bat Katanga, Snakepit‘s protagonist, finishes a postgraduate degree in mathematics at Cambridge in 1972 and comes home to Kampala. Amin has just kicked out the country’s foreigners, and Bat’s motives for returning are a mixture of patriotism and careerism, chiefly the latter: “Fifty thousand Indians and 180,000 Africans from different countries had been expelled, leaving many places open in the civil service. It seemed that flag independence was giving way to economic independence, and [Bat] wanted to be part of it.” A leading man with a soft spot for ethnic cleansing places us firmly in the zone of moral ambiguity, and we wonder where things will head. After a brief interview in a missile-laden, airborne helicopter with a fictional Amin deputy, General Samson Bazooka Ondogar, Bat is given control over the country’s power industry. He excels at his job and glories in its perquisites, driving a fast sports car, living in a colonial mansion and acquiring a mouthwatering and devoted concubine, Victoria.
What Bat doesn’t know is that the semi-literate, Machiavellian General Bazooka actually means to destroy him. Victoria is his plant, an agent of the secretive State Research Bureau. Bazooka, however, fails to realize that Victoria has fallen in love with her mark. When Victoria becomes too possessive, Bat proceeds to reject her (and their daughter) in favor of a more pliable, less independent wife. He is soon “disappeared,” detained in a dank cell underneath his own ministry–not, as Bat thinks, because he has accepted a multimillion-dollar bribe from a Saudi sheik but because General Bazooka incorrectly believes him to be spying for his rival, a vicious British mercenary named Robert Ashes, who has become Amin’s new confidant while secretly working for British intelligence…
And so it goes. The book moves at breakneck speed. Isegawa has called Snakepit an “adventure story,” and indeed it reads like a magical-realist Tom Clancy thriller, with far more violence and no good guys. The book’s cruelty and amorality are positively Jacobean. Ashes, trying to get the number of a Cayman Islands bank account from a British businessman, has his wife’s feet smashed off with a stone pestle. Victoria hires a gang to slice Bat’s new wife to pieces in her bath. Bat is forced to beat fellow detainees to death with a hammer. Bazooka cuts off his own little toe on a wager. There’s even a Clancy-style obsession with prestigious objects of technology, for which Isegawa invents a raft of make-believe brand names. The young General Bazooka kills three men for an “Oris Autocrat” wristwatch; later he flies a “Mirage Avenger” helicopter, and carries an “AK-57” rifle. Another general has “MiG-250” bombers at his command. Bat drives a “Jaguar XJ10”; others drive “Boomerangs,” “Stingers” or “Euphoria 707s.”
It is not at first clear what Isegawa is trying to do with these fanciful product names. They aren’t clever enough to work as jokes. But as the catalogue expands, it becomes apparent that the nonexistent objects help Isegawa cast his tale in an aura of fairy-tale nonspecificity, a nonspecificity he needs to sustain a rather fantastical plot that nonetheless makes use of real historical characters and settings. The recently deceased Ivoirian writer Ahmadou Kourouma employed a similar device in Waiting for the Savage Beasts to Vote, his excellent 1998 political roman à clef: The historical leaders of post-independence Africa were disguised as “The Man with the Leopard Totem” (Mobutu), or “The Man whose Totem is the Crocodile” (Houphouet-Boigny). In Kourouma’s book, the griot-style epithets highlighted the traditionalist mythology invoked by so many first-generation African presidents. In Snakepit the fantastical consumer technology alludes to the brand-name fetishism that the book’s characters share with the elites of so many of the world’s failed states.
The word “fetish” stems from a Portuguese word for the charms that sixteenth-century traders believed Africans worshiped. There’s an interesting line of argument that the idea of the fetish evolved from European anxieties about value in the nascent global exchange economy–that, in the context of a trade in which common copper bracelets could be exchanged for gold or slaves, Europeans created the “fetishistic” African to embody their fear of the irrationality of attachment. Later, when Marx and Freud evoke fetishism, whether of the commodity or sexual kind, the figure of the Europeans’ imaginary African hovers in the background. In any case, Snakepit‘s vision of an African elite riven by division and greed, preyed upon by foreign merchants and mercenaries, destroying its homeland in its craving for foreign baubles, finds echoes throughout today’s African popular culture, from the lyrics of Alpha Blondie to the films of Cheikh Omar Sissoko and Tunde Kelani.
So Isegawa is treating in powerful themes. Still, his savage portrait of the corruption of Amin-era Uganda cannot avoid a suggestion of dead-horse flogging. Is the author trying to say something, by analogy, about contemporary Uganda, Africa, the rest of the world? Or is he simply mining this grotesque landscape for dramatic characters and situations, rolling in the filth for the sheer fun of it?
The grimness of Snakepit is particularly striking given that Isegawa has elsewhere denounced overly harsh Western coverage of Africa. “Every time you see something about Africa, it has to be negative,” Isegawa told Transition magazine in a 2000 interview. “But 90 percent of our African experience is not about war or violence; it is about people getting on with their lives.” True enough, but Snakepit is unlikely to redress the balance.
One hint to what Isegawa wants to do with Snakepit may be his affecting portraits of the book’s more distasteful figures. (This includes pretty much all of them.) Even the most revolting characters are granted a moment in their own point of view; and it is surprising, despite the novel’s galloping pace, how much nuance and feeling Isegawa can invest them with. General Bazooka, the barely schooled murderer, is driven by a deep emotional dependence on his mother and first wife, and a violent resentment of educated southerners; when one of his sons does badly in school, he rejoices. Bat’s brother-in-law Mafuta is a clumsy, overweight man who had the bad timing to study town planning in early-1960s Uganda. The mutual resentment between him and the superior, career-obsessed Bat is utterly convincing. The female characters are less so, and at moments Isegawa reveals an embarrassing, anatomically explicit chauvinism. But Victoria, at least, has a convincing enough backstory of grief and striving that when she finally resorts to murder, we feel regret.
In Snakepit‘s better sections, this omnidirectional empathy for despicable characters produces a dissonance reminiscent of Gogol, or a good episode of The Sopranos. One finds oneself momentarily sharing the loathsome Ashes’s disdain for his victims, and, a bit later, pitying poor Bazooka, who is reduced to fleeing for his life as Amin’s regime collapses. Isegawa is an admirer of the Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, whose 1984 book Imperialism and Fascism in Uganda treated Amin as an intelligent, calculating politician rather than the bloodthirsty buffoon of Western press caricatures. Snakepit‘s sympathetic monsters may be an effort to extend Mamdani’s insight.
So this may have been the book Isegawa wanted to write: a fast-moving Third World thriller combining an uncompromising Dostoyevskian moral sympathy with an uncompromising Cormac McCarthy brutality. But he hasn’t succeeded. For much of its length, Snakepit teeters on the brink of dissolution. Plot elements are often weirdly sketchy; major developments are described in a vague shorthand. More important, neither of the book’s antagonists, Bat and Bazooka, seems to make any intellectual or emotional headway. At the end of the book Bat is given a reflective coda that seems entirely devoid of significance.
It’s hard not to feel that the book’s failure has something to do with Isegawa’s attitude toward his audience. In essays and interviews, Isegawa baits his European public mercilessly. Europe is “a continent of slow learners, who needed 8,000 years to assimilate Arabic and Chinese technology.” Its people are no giants, as he once thought, but “average people…who have put their fate in the hands of bureaucrats.” His attitude toward his (presumably much smaller) African readership is even more dismissive. On returning to Kampala for a promotional tour for Abyssinian Chronicles, he shrugged off local reviewers: “When you’ve been reviewed by the New York Times and Time magazine, do you really care what some little Ugandan paper thinks?”
Disdain for one’s public is not necessarily an unproductive attitude for a writer. It becomes dangerous only when it leads one to do sloppy work, in the belief that the readers don’t know any better. Snakepit has the feel of a rush job. It is no mystery why Knopf waited five years to publish it; the surprise is that they’re putting it out at all.
About halfway through Snakepit, Bat takes his docile country wife, Babit, on a trip to London. Describing Babit’s reaction, Isegawa hauls out an absolutely killer, farm-fresh metaphor: “The luxury and magnificence of the city sat in her mind like a bull in a hut.” This is either a familiar Luganda expression or more evidence that Moses Isegawa is a major writer. In either case, it’s clear he’s in the same bind as Babit: The problem of European-African relations is sitting in his mind like a bull in a hut. With any luck, once he works through it, or stops thinking about it, he will go on to produce another great novel.