Abyssinian Chronicles

by Moses Isegawa. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. 462 pages.

Abyssinian Chronicles, the much-praised first novel by the Ugandan writer Moses Isegawa, is a vast, sprawling, ambitious tale that covers the history of Uganda from the '50s to the present day, including the regime of Idi Amin, the two dictatorships of Milton Obote, the expulsion and return of the country's East Indians, and the periods of chaos in between. Isegawa has been compared to writers such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez, but his book may have more in common with another groundbreaking first novel: Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. Like The Tin Drum, this is an episodic novel with a vast range of characters that focuses on a child growing up in the most dysfunctional of societies. The heroes of both books are molded by their experience in ways that may make them unsympathetic to the reader, and both books convey bitter messages about the moral compromises made by ordinary people in times of political turmoil.

Abyssinian Chronicles is told by its main character Mugezi, meaning "clever" -- a boy when the story begins. Mugezi is an omniscient narrator, recounting many scenes at which he isn't actually present and delving deeply into the unspoken thoughts of others. Everything he says is touched by his rebellious and sometimes cruel and self-centered character, and his preoccupation with sex, violence, and excrement. As a child, he admires Idi Amin for his overweening pride -- a pride he feels he needs himself in order to resist the crushing authority of his mother (nicknamed Padlock) and the priests at the oppressive Catholic school he attends. Like others around him, he finds the expulsion of the Indians a time of opportunity, and he uses the chaos of war as a chance to prosper as a smuggler and to find romantic conquests among the shell-shocked survivors. If Mugezi develops as a human being in the course of the novel, it doesn't appear to be in the direction of compassion. Even at the novel's end, in exile in the Netherlands, he expresses contempt for his fellow Ugandan exiles and their menial jobs, for the Dutch aid workers who have brought him there, and for the prostitutes he sometimes frequents.

Mugezi's family provides many of the most vivid and often grotesque characters in this tale. His father, traumatized as a boy by the death of his own mother, earns the name Serenity in his withdrawal from life. Mugezi's mother, a fanatic Catholic, looms over Mugezi's childhood like a terrifying idol. Other relatives offer glimpses of the outside world. Mugezi's Uncle Kawayida, a meter reader, appears periodically on his motorcycle, the "blue-bellied eagle," to tell tales of the lust and violence he witnesses on his rounds. Padlock's sister Lwandeka joins a resistance movement after being tortured by some thugs of the Amin regime, only to be gang-raped by the country's Tanzanian liberators when Amin falls.

Why are these "Abyssinian" chronicles? In part, because Mugezi's uncle believes that the "Abyssinia" of antiquity was not Ethiopia, as is generally thought, but Uganda. But more importantly, Mugezi considers Uganda to be "Abyssinian" because it is the country of the abyss.

Though it is often uncomfortable to read, the novel's knotty, tactile style puts the agony of Uganda in front of you, from the smell of bodies to the rumble of tanks. With its unexpected images (the Pope is described as a "holy armadillo ... washed in the blood of imperial power") and sometimes unpalatable scenes, Abyssinian Chronicles immerses the reader in a nightmare of recent history. The book has a sexual frankness unusual in African fiction -- and it is one of the few African novels so far to deal head-on with the ravages of AIDS.

Published in the Harvard Post, April 13, 2001.

From Abyssinian Chronicles:

I sometimes felt the urge to go out and wander through the streets, dark lanes and piss-sodden alleyways, or negotiate my way to the taxi park and watch its midnight emptiness. I wanted to gauge its actual size, walk its length and breadth alone and fill it with my imagination, but it was unsafe. The caverns of darkness crawled with robbers. The mysterious depths of the night hid wrongdoers on the prowl. The length and breadth were alive with soldiers on patrol, in search of nocturnal excitement and illicit adventure. The sky was alive with ghosts of people killed in the coup, killed before the coup, killed during the state of emergency, killed at the dawn of independence as politics wore hideous masks and became bloodier all the time. The night was full of ghosts redolent with earthly smells, ghosts in search of the next world, ghosts saying endless, faceless goodbyes, ghosts flying about for one last glimpse of their beloved, ghosts marking their loved ones with bat-like claws. Grandma was one of those ghosts. It was better to spend the night in the same place, in case she located me, in case she smelled me, in case she chose this particular night to reveal herself to me.