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.