An African Trickster - A young Ugandan learns to take advantage of whatever is placed in front of him in a novel chronicling the country's postcolonial history of excesses by one wretched leader after another.
Book Info:ABYSSINIAN CHRONICLES Moses Isegawa Publisher:New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000 462 pp., $26.00
Some books appear out of nowhere, quietly touching us by striking a recognizable chord--an emotion or two that we relate to instinctively, with no surprise that we have been moved. Others come at us with gale force, their hype (often on the publisher's part) almost provoking us to say that we haven't been touched. Moses Isegawa's Abyssinian Chronicles belongs in the latter category. A commendation on the jacket, under a portrait of the author, refers to Isegawa's book as "the great African novel."
Certainly the scope of his novel is impressive, perhaps its major strength.
We follow the checkered life of a young Ugandan named Mugezi, beginning before his birth and concluding perhaps thirty years later. Episode through episode, it details the major incidents of his complicated life, which has Dickensian parallels. Moreover, Abyssinian Chronicles is as much a history of Uganda's postcolonial past, a chronicle of the country's bloody cycle of excesses by one wretched leader after another--certainly, in fact, one of the worst cycles of the abuse of power the continent has known. This emphasis on the state's collapse often gives the impression that the book is not so much a novel as an eyewitness account of things falling apart (to use Chinua Achebe's term), but more will be said about that later.
The makings of an outsider
Isegawa's Chronicles begins as a family memoir, as Mugezi tells of his father's attempts to remarry after a failed first marriage. That marriage (which will lead to Mugezi's birth) accomplished, one might logically
anticipate an account of the narrator's childhood in idyllic, peaceful, or at least positive terms. No such story appears, though, because of generational strife. Instead of being raised by his parents, Mugezi is "appropriated" by his paternal grandfather and great-aunt, who become his surrogate parents. The details of this convoluted transference are connected to the equally entangled relationship of his biological parents. His father, called Serenity, has plenty of women on the side; his mother, an ex-nun with an uncontrollable abusive streak, is referred to as "Padlock." The parents seem about as ill suited for one another as possible.
Following a rupture with the "grandparents," Mugezi, his parents, and his younger siblings leave the village for Kampala. The boy's life is not improved by city comforts (there are none) but made even more austere by Padlock's continual abuse. The contrast between village and city life is vivid. Bawdy stories of seduction and violence (the rawness of village life) are replaced by accounts of the city's overwhelming squalor. Urban life ought to offer more rewards, but it doesn't. People are simply displaced. Isegawa is at his best when he describes the horrors of African urbanization--details so explicitly presented that many passages cannot be quoted here.
The author's metaphor for the city is excrement and not solely because of a lack of adequate sanitation. Rather, Padlock insists that Mugezi be responsible for cleaning his young siblings' daily evacuations. He must force them to squat over sheets of newspaper, wipe their bottoms, and then dispose of the paper in a city refuse pile every single day. Thus, Mugezi begins to see his siblings not as blood relatives but as excrement machines--since that is his major relationship with them. Sadly, the result is that he never refers to any of these brothers or sisters by their proper names but collectively by the Anglo-Saxon word for "excrementers." Before long, Mugezi begins to hate food because of what it becomes; he lives for the hours he is at school, away from his immediate family. Realistically, how can any young child--and he's only about ten--develop a positive relationship with parents who are sadists and siblings who are perpetual waste producers? It's the one phase of his existence when we feel sympathy for him, but the consequences are so extreme that healthy human relationships are all but impossible for the rest of his life.
Interestingly, when Idi Amin takes over the country, Mugezi identifies with the dictator, seeing Amin's defiance of the British (and the West in general) as the rebellion he would like to achieve within his own household. He'd like to kill his parents, whom he begins referring to as "the dictators," but he has to be content with petty abuses of their property that they can never trace back to his malice and rage. All this is certainly understandable, because Padlock beats him sadistically when he rebels in even the mildest fashion.
The first several chapters of Mugezi's narrative thus chronicle the makings of an outsider. The dysfunctional family, abusive environment, and city squalor suggest that we are in Dickensian territory, with hints that this child will eventually turn out all right, following in the steps of Pip, David Copperfield, or Oliver Twist. While the similarities to those characters may not be intentional, they are certainly implicit in any number of horrifying scenes straight out of Victorian novels, where children are too often the pawns of injurious adults, parents, or other caregivers. But the similarity ends there.
Midway through the narrative we realize that the wretchedness is not going to end, the child has already been permanently scarred. Wisdom, insight, development in the form of the bildungsroman will not occur. Rather, the tortured becomes the torturer--perhaps not so calculatingly direct as his parents but numbed of his humanity. The story is not about Mugezi's development at all; he doesn't change. Rather, he's become a drifter, a con man, a rogue, an antihero, and, above all, an African trickster.
Temporarily, Mugezi escapes his family by entering a Catholic seminary, hopeful that the church will offer respite and renewal. "At the seminary," he recalls, "we seemed to be attending one long, unending mass. Morning light seemed to be doing perpetual battle with stained- glass chapel windows, holding us hostage to a self-repeating drama. Seminarians, faces upturned in sublime boredom and lips moving somnolently, were like baby birds waiting to be fed." But it doesn't take long for him to realize that he has merely exchanged one prison for another. The food and living conditions are no better than they were at home with Serenity and Padlock. For survival, Mugezi quickly learns to play one priest off against another. Only his cunning protects him from other seminarians and the Gestapo-like clergy. When he leaves, it is not because he has completed his education but because he can no longer endure the place.
Mugezi drifts along from one episode to the next, each incident with new characters and a new setting. Uganda becomes equally rudderless, as Amin is forced into exile, but the guerrilla forces operating both within and outside the country transform much of the nation into a war zone. Now Uganda was "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. There was an explosive feeling in the air." The images of a state in utter collapse spill over from the text; the bloody descriptions of gruesome excesses are piled one upon another:
"Everybody, soldier and civilian, was on edge, as though chilled by the trumpets of defeat. I looked closely at the soldiers, the men who had charmed me on the day Amin divided Lake Albert in two and who had generally made me feel protected. They looked haggard, harassed, as if they had been fed on poisoned food for a month. I knew that among them were men who had committed the most horrendous crimes, torturing, mutilating and killing people. How was the chaff going to be separated from the grain. "
The above passage is one of the milder references to the unspeakable events that tear the country apart. Family, church (seminary), and state--all collapse, before Mugezi's eyes and everyone else's, since everyone loses.
Mugezi continues to drift. He enrolls at the university for a time, hoping to earn a law degree. He teaches briefly but quits to make more money brewing beer. He has a number of sexual liaisons, and constantly takes advantage of others and of situations that avail themselves because of the relentless guerrilla warfare. One insight about him comes, ironically, because of two minor characters. One says to another of Mugezi's friends, who is equally self-serving, "You are a chameleon ... with no sense of loyalty or principle." The second responds, "I am a child of the darkness. ... I sense where the wind blows."
Although the war finally ends, little change is apparent. Mugezi begins working for the Ministry of Rehabilitation, but it's his own rehabilitation that he's most concerned about. Though he takes advantage of others whenever possible (by pocketing many of the government fees that he collects), nevertheless he remarks, "I was becoming more convinced that the afterbirth of war was in ways worse than the actual fighting itself, and that winning the peace was harder than winning the war. Now the guns were silent and the howling of ghosts had taken over."
Another uncontrollable scourge
Just when it would seem impossible for Uganda's lot (or the continent's fate) to become bleaker, quite unexpectedly AIDS explodes, brutalizing people who have already endured the impossible. In this sense, also, Isegawa's specific title becomes generic: not historical Abyssinia nor contemporary Uganda but an entire continent must endure still another uncontrollable scourge.
"Since the end of the guerrilla war, a mysterious disease which slimmed people to the bones had started killing in big numbers. Judging by the sneaky way it operated--recurrent fevers, rashes, blisters--it looked like witchcraft. Many people went to the Vicar or to other witch doctors for consultation. It had started in southwestern Uganda. ... The theory was that this witchcraft was punishment meted out by Tanzanian smugglers who had been cheated by their Ugandan counterparts in the seventies and eighties when smuggling was rife in marshy areas. Business being the pigsty it was, and for lack of a better explanation, many people bought the theory. But then, what about those people dying in the city?"
"Not long after, the disease got a medical name--AIDS--but remained Slim to us. It gave a completely new slant to the theory that war is always followed by other disasters. World War I had its Spanish flu. This was our meaner, more devastating version of it. It slowly ground the most productive people to dust and burdened old people with the millstone of raising orphaned grandchildren. It struck at the heart of the social fabric and stretched to breaking point the tenuous bonds of extended family. It made towns quake with the fevers of arrested development, and villages sob with the woes of unfulfilled potential. It made cities retch with the talons of unassuageable pain, and the villages writhe with the stench of green-black diarrhea. "
A gigolo in Amsterdam
AIDS kills members of Mugezi's own extended family, including his favorite aunt, and becomes part of the catalyst for his final move into another arena. He flees Uganda for Amsterdam, not surprisingly because of another questionable act, and soon--after acquiring false papers (passport and citizenship)--is actively and happily conning others. His first liaison is with a woman who is half Ugandan and half white. When that ends, he becomes the gigolo of a rich Dutch woman. When he learns that both his parents have died from freak encounters with wild animals, he sheds hardly a tear. In short, Mugezi acts as he always has done, taking advantage of whatever is placed in front of him, be they people or objects.
At the conclusion of the story, when Mugezi is tired of being the kept man of a rich white woman, he packs his bags and returns to Amsterdam's Central Station, watching people on the street, but supposedly moving on to the next stage of his life.
"People of all nations and colors poured into the great city like ants streaming toward predestined locations in subterranean tunnels. As I looked, my head began to spin: I was getting dizzy. People seemed to be walking upside down, the dead rising from their graves, the living diving into fresh graves. There was motion and inversion everywhere: the invaders were being invaded, the partitioners being partitioned, the penetrators getting penetrated. The mixing and juxtaposition of peoples became mind-blowing, the destinations and points of departure mythic. I held on to the cement bank in order to stop myself from spewing or getting spewed. I had found myself a stone to lay my head on, an enchanted hilltop made of boulders from all the corners of the globe. I was back in my element: watching, planning, waiting for the right time to strike. Abyssinia was on my mind; so was my new foothold on this precipitous hilltop. It has always been a Herculean task for Abyssinians to get their foot in the door, but once in, they never budge. I was in. "
What is this supposed to mean? More exploitation of others? Is he staying in the Netherlands? Is he returning to Uganda? Unfortunately, the brief biography of the author on the book jacket offers no clue, though it does tell us that Isegawa is a Dutch citizen. (Abyssinian Chronicles was published in Dutch, two years ago, though apparently it was originally written in English.) Let's just say that Mugezi is an escapee--one of an increasing number of Africans who will flee the continent because of AIDS. And the West sits on the sidelines doing little, waiting to see how vast the flow of refugees will be.n