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Moses Isegawa: Abessijnse kronieken (Abyssinian Chronicles)

Isegawa’s (semi-)autobiographical novel is a rambunctious, sprawling novel which might remind you of Peter Carey or even Salman Rushdie. It tells the story of the narrator, known as Mugezi, from his young life in Uganda to his young adult life in the Netherlands. In fact, the story starts with his father’s fairly dramatic death in the mouth of a crocodile and therein lies the tale. For much of the novel is concerned with his rather unhappy relationship with his father, Serenity, and his mother, the former nun, Padlock. Padlock, so nicknamed because of her reluctance to have sex (though she bears Serenity many children), is a cruel mother, frequently beating Mugezi and his siblings (whom he has to look after and whom he affectionately nicknames the shitters). Indeed, she got defrocked as a nun for cruelly beating some of the children in her care. Padlock is not a particularly good wife and Serenity, whose ambition is to be a postman and read a lot, keeps away from the children, except for occasional punishments and, indeed, avoids his wife except for the occasional sex he is allowed and to berate her for her alleged extra-marital relationship with Loverboy.

Many a good novel is based on the hero’s fight against authority and this one is clearly in that mould. His first fights are, of course, against his parents but he also suffers at school, first from bullies (particularly at his first school) but, of course, also from teachers. While at the seminary, he engages in running battles and subversive warfare with some of the teaching staff and these adventures are a key part of his growing up and very well told. All of his travails would be worthy enough of a novel but they are heightened by being told against the background of the rise and fall of Idi Amin and Isegawa spares no details of the brutal civil war of which many Ugandans, including Mugezi himself, are more or less victims. His survival is also a key part of the story. Not all is bad for him for other relatives tend to be much nicer, particularly his aunt, with whom he lives and who is part of the guerrillas fighting first against Amin and then against Milton Obote.

Of course, the end of the war is not the end of the problems for the Ugandans. First there is the aftermath of the war, though Mugezi is a survivor and makes a living for himself (though not as the lawyer he had hoped to be). Then there is AIDS, which decimates the population of Uganda. His parents both die in unpleasant circumstances – his mother killed by a buffalo, his father by a crocodile, though no-one knows this except the narrator, as their bodies are never found. But, in the end, it is all too much for he skips the country for the Netherlands where we see him starting a new life.

Though the novel slows down at the end, the frenetic pace, the larger than life characters, many of whom I have not mentioned here, the sheer ability of Mugezi to rise above his fairly grim circumstances, the wit with which he tells his story, while never losing the serious touch and the touching portrait of the Ugandans, not all of whom are saints, make this a very fine novel and one to be thoroughly recommended.

Publishing history

First published in Dutch in 1998 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English 2000 by Knopf/Picador