A review of Moses Isegawa’s Abyssinian Chronicles

A boy is raised in the land of despots, where the “curried curses of dispossessed property owners” is not necessary to explode into murderous excess. Between his abusive and tyrannical parents, and the abusive and tyrannical dictator Idi Amin, who he first turns to for moral strength against his parental oppressors, we watch the coming of age of a child mirrored in the troubles of a country. Mugezi is the narrator of Abyssinian Chronicles; guide and spokesman through the morass of family and country, microcosm and macrocosm.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Abyssinian Chronicles
By Moses Isegawa
Picador, Pan Macmillan Australia
ISBN: 0330376659
May 2001
RRP $A21.00

A boy is raised in the land of despots, where the “curried curses of dispossessed property owners” is not necessary to explode into murderous excess. Between his abusive and tyrannical parents, and the abusive and tyrannical dictator Idi Amin, who he first turns to for moral strength against his parental oppressors, we watch the coming of age of a child mirrored in the troubles of a country. Mugezi is the narrator of Abyssinian Chronicles; guide and spokesman through the morass of family and country, microcosm and macrocosm. The story is a fairly straight narrative, beginning dramatically in the jaws of a crocodile, and moving through Mugezi’s youth in a small Ugandan village in the 1960s where he lives with his grandfather and grandmother, his grandfather’s sister, through his Cinderella like life in the 1970s with his despotic parents and his many siblings (the “shitters”) in the city after Amin’s coup, his life as a student in a seminary college, his stint as a rehabilitation officer in the post-Amin army, and his migration to Amsterdam in the 1980s. As a narrator, Mugezi is intelligent, well drawn, and makes a charming guide to the fascinating events which occurred during Amin’s coup and subsequent overthrow, along with the richness and horror of life in Uganda during that time. We watch him grow and change, along with the growth and change of the country, and the parallel between the two works quite well, providing a human context for the political upheavals, along with the usual themes of life, growth, and Mugezi’s search for identity and meaning in his life. The combination of tough bravado as he battles the arrogance and prejudice of the priests: “All these white people believed they were scoring a point with the monkey thing, but they were not: they were just scratching their own assholes”; literary acumen, and lost soul searching for a metaphorical home, make for an interesting portrait and generally sympathetic character, full of the contradictions and confusions which come with adolescence and early adulthood, especially coupled with the newly independent post-colonial Africa’s own early coming to terms with its freedoms and the capabilities for oppression and corruption. Although there are some linguistic problems with the story, generally Isegawa’s command of the English language is strong, and his use of words, innovative, and rich in metaphor, as when he describes his grandfather’s homestead: “Every migrant soul was now a compact little ghost captured in words, invoked from the lacuna by the oracle of Grandma and Grandpa and made to inject doses of old life into our present truncated existence”, or the lush descriptions of the crumbling “majestic greedy road” post-Amin, with its looters full of goods, its hungry criminals, exuberant students, and desperate crowds, cheering the liberators (326-8).

The novel is full of broad themes, such as the hypocrisy of religion, particularly Catholicism as typified by his failed nun mother Padlock, and the humorously depicted sadistic or laconic priests who run his seminary college, or during the his parents’ government funded Pilgrimage to Rome during a “holy year”. There is the continual conflict between the Muslims, the Protestants, the Catholics, and the remnants of tribal religion as typified by the shamans and witchdoctors, and of course the horrors of war, and the complexity and impossibility of solution. There is the longing for a home, safety and love, in Mugezi, his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the devastation wrought by AIDs (known as Slim), which hit Uganda hard in the 1980s.

There is also the humour, which is generally black, and sardonic, but also adds a lively colour to the intensity of the events, and often grizzly descriptions of rape, death, and destruction. From the terror experienced by Mugezi’s mother Padlock at her wedding to his father, and the anticlimactic “;mountains of shit and lakes of vomit”, indicators of fecundity, to the nappy/diaper changing laundry and bottom wiping duties in his parent’s city home, to the little acts of sabotage he carries out on his oppressors, at home and school. It is a survivor’s humour, a black grimace in the face of terror and destruction, and opting for life, and a kind of personal honour, in spite of it all.

Despite the gorgeous scale of the book, the fascinating story, and the well drawn characters, Abyssinian Chronicles is not without its problems. While the story is primarily from Mugezi’s point of view, occasionally we enter the minds of other characters, before Mugezi’s birth, or into intimate details of his mother or aunt’s lives, which appear as slippages from first person into an omniscient third person, as when he depicts his aunt’s gang rape, his father’s experiences in Rome, or his mother’s death under the body of a lonely rhino. It is possible that these are meant to be re-enactments or surmises on Mugezi’s part, but they come across as lapses in the storytelling, and make for a patchy narrative in an already complex story. There is also Mugezi’s language, which has a tendency to be somewhat overblown and flowery. This is consistent with a literary minded teenager, and at times, mirrors the parodied love letter sent by Mugezi to his mother in a successful attempt to wreck his parents marriage in an attempt at revenge for a particularly merciless beating. The flowery language would probably have worked better if the extensive metaphor tapered off as Mugezi got older, and more sophisticated, but while most of the metaphors are powerful, and original, they are used so heavily, that they tend to dilute the overall effectiveness of the narrative, and compete with the intensity of the story. The metaphors come thick and fast, and occasionally are mixed, as with “Uganda was in a state of siege, writhing like a dying moth on the floor. The bugles of defeat were poised, waiting to blow the walls down. The inside of the country was like a grenade whose pin had already been drawn.” (305), and coupled with the repetitive use of favoured words such as the ever present “lacuna”, and “triple headed hydra”, that the overall style, particularly once Mugezi gets past his childhood, stays stuck in a kind of adolescence of over description.

Another problem is Isegawa’s attempt to perhaps cover too much ground. As the years move by and the story speeds up, there is a sense of anti-climax, with Mugezi complaining just as hard about life in the Amsterdam Ghetto, or life in the Army as he did while living under his parents despotic rule, which lends a mild whiny tone to the tale, and drags out as the story continues past the Ugandan conflict. Some of the diversions away from Mugezi’s personal tale are not only choppy from a narrative point, but also serve to make the novel overly long, and don’t entirely fit, as with his parents pilgrimages to Rome, or the many love affairs, particularly the episodes with Jo, which seems an afterthought and is both too rushed, and too strained to work in the overall context, and with Eva Jazz, where a tired, almost bored tone diminishes the ending. Perhaps if the book were a little shorter, and more directed, trying to tell a few less stories, it would have worked better. After all, the main story of Uganda’s troubles in the 70s is a powerful enough tale, especially as shown through an intelligent and lucid boy’s eyes. However, despite the faults, which are relatively minor in the overall context and ambitious scope of the book, Abyssinian Chronicles is an impressive first novel, and provides a fascinating look at the historical events and life in post-colonial Uganda from a very personal, original, and intimate perspective. It is both an enjoyable read in itself, edifying, thought provoking, and educational, and with a little tightening of style, shows significant promise for future books by Moses Isegawa.

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