I was in two minds about this one. Everyone I’d spoken to about Ugandan literature, from writer Musa Okwonga to the folks at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, had come back with the same recommendation: Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino (or Defence of Lawino, depending on which translation you read).
The only issue was that the work was a narrative poem, rather than a prose piece. While I was planning to consider narrative poetry from countries where novels, short stories and memoirs in English were in short supply, I found the idea of opting for poetry when there were prose options available difficult.
In the end, flying in the face of one of the most unanimous recommendations I’ve had so far this year, I decided to add the p’Bitek to the list but to choose a novel. Oh God, I thought as I spiralled Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa down on to my Kindle, please be good.
Set in the 1970s and 1980s, this ambitious novel tells the story of post-independence Uganda’s turbulent struggle for peace and identity through the eyes of Mugezi. Growing up in an abusive household before, during and after the Amin years, he witnesses the impact of national events on those around him and, through the choices he makes, reveals how individuals internalise and play out the currents of politics in their own lives.
The idea of a single person or part of something standing for the whole is a running theme in the novel. Whether it’s Mugezi’s parents’ disastrous wedding night, during which the happy couple have to be helped to consummate their union by the bride’s aunt, which ‘in many ways typified the whole of their marriage’, or Mugezi’s emulation of ‘St Amin’ in his stealth campaign to take revenge on his violent mother by a series of unpleasant pranks planned with military precision and despotic flair – at least in the days before his admiration of the dictator is ‘killed by the murderous light of truth’ – synecdoche is the order of the day.
Unusually for a novel written in English, the book was first published in translation – in Holland, where Isegawa has lived since 1990. This is particularly striking when you consider the author’s love of putting language through its paces. From the very first sentence – ‘Three final images flashed across Serenity’s mind as he disappeared into the jaws of the colossal crocodile’ – he reaches for creative forms and tropes to surprise, intrigue and emote.
Perhaps the most striking example is his description of Mugezi’s aunt’s gang rape by soldiers, in which the clinical report of the duration of the event, the precise number of thrusts and touches she endured and the quantity of bodily fluids produced communicates the emotional toll the ordeal took far more effectively than any subjective description could.
Now and then, the ambitious scope of the novel causes problems. There is so much context to explain that the work is hi-jacked by odd passages of socio-political exposition and the narrative feels distended by this, like a python that has swallowed but not yet fully digested a large meal. Similarly, the expansive cast of characters woven through Mugezi’s experiences give parts of the novel a baggy feel.
But the positives far outweigh the negatives. The book is funny, shocking and vibrant by turns, throbbing with anger and hope. Isegawa has made history his story, and that is no mean feat. How the work compares with Song of Lawino, I’ve no idea – I’ll have to read that next year and find out…
Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa (Picador, 2011)