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.
I know the title sounds misleading, but this novel isn’t about Ethiopia (once known as Abyssinia), but Uganda. (This is sort-of-explained by the narrator’s father (Serenity) thinking that the ancient land called Abyssinia should really be the modern land of Uganda, but I wasn’t sure exactly what Isegawa was thinking of here – obviously not Homer’s “blameless Ethiopians”).
When I was growing up just about all we heard about Uganda was about its crazy dictator, Idi Amin Dada, who was an endless source of both jokes and horror to the rest of the world (Uganda seemed a safely small and remote place). A great novel (and film) about his time is The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden. Obviously being a bigoted buffoon doesn’t stop someone from being powerful (I’m writing this on Donald Trump’s inauguration day). But I should say that although I haven’t visited Uganda – I’m hoping to, perhaps on my next trip – those who have been there seem to universally find the country beautiful and the people great, and say that it’s one of their favourite African countries.
Isegawa is a fluent writer who spins an interesting tale of a family interwoven with Uganda’s turbulent history. However, I have to admit that I couldn’t get my hooks into this novel. None of the characters are really sympathetic, and the narrator (Mugezi), especially, although he is an understandable product of his unattractive parents (the family is like a microcosm of a dictatorial regime), is not a nice piece of work – an admirer of the Idi Amin at the beginning (later he acquires a bodyguard called Amin who “was reprisal himself”), with pretty racist opinions of the local Indians whom the dictator expelled from their country, who seems to despise almost everyone and resorts to some ugly stratagems to get ahead in his quest to gain control. The complete modus operandi of the despot is on display – intimidation, bullying, censorship, torture, protection, power struggles and lies. He seems to hate everyone and even contemplates using his would-be fiancée as a means of getting revenge on his father.
Although Isegawa wrote the book in English, it was first published in Dutch in the Netherlands where he was living then (he since moved back to Uganda.
As others have said, the novel strangely amoral, I’d say even sometimes immoral. It’s also often quite earthy, as you might gather from the opening quotation above (but not magical realist, as I first thought). Nevertheless, it is quite readable. I just wish there was someone in it I could like…
Isegawa, Moses (1963 – ), Abyssinian Chronicles, New York, Vintage, 2001, ISBN 0-375-040613
[originally published in the Netherlands 1998 as Abessijnse kronieken]
My devastating Kenyan choice starts explosively with the protagonist being arrested for murder:
They came for him that Sunday. He had just returned from a night’s vigil on the mountain. He was resting on his bed, Bible open at the Book of Revelation, when two police constables, one tall, the other short, knocked at the door.
“’Are you Mr Munira?’ the short one asked. He had a star-shaped scar above the left brow.
’You teach at the New Ilmorog Primary School?’
’And where do you think you are now standing?’
’Ah, yes. We try to be very sure. Murder, after all, is not irio or ugali.’
’What are you talking about?’
’You are wanted at the New Ilmorog Police Station.’
’Murder, of course – murder in Ilmorog.’”
This is a much meatier and severer work than my Tanzanian book, Paradise. It is a searing endictment of a country newly liberated from colonialism, but now subject to injustices from its own leading classes. Someone obviously thought so – the author was imprisoned without trial because of it! It also has a much more bitter tone than Gurnah’s book.
Ngũgĩ is famous for having stopped writing in English. He highlighted the African writers’ dilemma of whether they should remain prisoners of their respective colonial languages, with the sugar of a vastly wider market and earnings, or should devote themselves entirely to developing their native languages, inevitably limiting themselves to a tiny market. If they do write in Kikuyu (Gĩkũyũ) (like Ngũgĩ; or whatever), and turn out a worthy work, they can probably be sure that it will be translated into English anyway, so it would seem to be better if the author himself writes the English version as well. But I have just read the bilingual In altre parole/In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, about her experience in learning Italian, and I’m no longer so sure. She deliberately didn’t translate the work, which she wrote in (what seems to me magnificent) Italian into her stronger language of English for a complicated set of reasons based on wanting to be faithful to the language of composition.
Back to Kenya: A poignant moment comes when the schoolteacher Karega is teaching Kenya’s proud (pre)history while remembering its sufferings at the hand of nature and man:
“These thoughts mocked at Karega as he was carried along by the grandeur of the people’s past, the great cultures that spread from Malindi to Tripoli. He confided: The Earlies Man, father of all men on earth, is thought to have been born in Kenya… Lake Turkana… and he stood back and expected a gasp of disbelief or a few questions.
‘Yes, Muriuki,’ he pointed to a child whose hand seemed raised.
There was a great rustling of books, noise from the benches, children clambering from their desks. Muriuki had fallen down.’
The boy had fainted from hunger.
There is an interesting introduction by the author of my Ugandan choice, Moses Isegawa (to follow).
Petals of Blood is a key work to understanding the continuing impact of colonialism on the African psyche. It’s a bit of a plod (compared to Paradise, for instance), angry and depressing and occasionally confusing. But considering its importance and how much its author suffered for it, it deserves to be read.
NGŨGĨ wa Thiong’o (1938 – ), Petals of Blood, New York, Penguin, 2005 (first published 1977), ISBN 978-0-14-303917-4
“The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly during his twelfth year. He remembered it was the season of drought, when every day was the same as the last. Unexpected flowers bloomed and died. Strange insects scuttled from under rocks and writhed to their deaths in the burning light. The sun made distant trees tremble in the air and made the houses shudder and heave for breath. Clouds of dust puffed up at every tramping footfall and a hard-edged stillness lay over the daylight hours. Precise moments like that came back of the season.”
A tour d’horizon of colonialised Tanzania (Tanganyika + Zanzibar). The bulk of the book follows an expedition from the coast to the interior at the dawn of the colonial era. (The author himself is from Zanzibar). The young hero, Yusuf, encounters both the German colonialists and other tribes whom he poorly understands – he is pretty much just as much an outsider there as the Europeans. As an outsider it is good to be reminded that also to an African, other Africans can seem equally exotic. As a boy Yusuf is taken on the long journey inland by his uncle, and only eventually comes to realise that the latter is actually using him to pay off his debts. A minor quibble is that the Swahili words in the text were not glossed (my Swahili is fairly minimal!) It brings into relief the vast differences between the coastal and interior people, which splits Tanzania to this day. It is well worth reading, even if much more lightweight than my Kenyan title, Petals of Blood (coming soon!) and a little slow to get rolling.
GURNAH, Abdulrazak (1948 – ), Paradise, London: Bloomsbury, 2004 (or. publ. 1994), ISBN 9780747573999