A good pan in Africa

<i>Abyssinian Chronicles</i> by Moses Isegawa (Picador, &pound;16, 462pp)
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The Independent Culture

The all-inclusive enclave of postcolonial literature is now teeming with what would, before the demise of the Soviet Union, have been termed "Third World" writers. Whether these writers are Somalis living in Kent, Sudanese in Catalonia or - in this case - a Ugandan in Holland, relationships between them and their place of (temporary) abode have nothing to do with erstwhile domination. The postcolonial label has now been stretched to fit them all.

The all-inclusive enclave of postcolonial literature is now teeming with what would, before the demise of the Soviet Union, have been termed "Third World" writers. Whether these writers are Somalis living in Kent, Sudanese in Catalonia or - in this case - a Ugandan in Holland, relationships between them and their place of (temporary) abode have nothing to do with erstwhile domination. The postcolonial label has now been stretched to fit them all.

However, few contemporary, non-western writers are overtly concerned with yesterday's imperialist trajectories. Instead, dictatorship and deprivation fuel their fictions. Moses Isegawa is no exception. Abyssinian Chronicles belongs to a worthy tradition of novels of exile from Africa. The hero grows up in a rowdy, oppressive family; he witnesses the oppression of his nation by a manic dictator; family patriarchs parallel autocratic rulers; feisty women stage conflicts between tradition and change. The disappointed hero departs for western shores, to be greeted there by the revelation that he's just another bit of poor migrant trash.

Set mostly during the Idi Amin years, Isegawa's story begins in the time of Obote, with the story of the courtship and marriage of Serenity and Padlock, and the birth of their son: Mugezi, the narrator, who is eight when Amin takes over. External events, however, only echo distantly in the opening sections. In the tradition of Márquez and his followers, Isegawa's is a family saga: courtships, marriages and betrayals, rivalries and religious passions are recounted in paradoxical combinations of lavish detail and breakneck speed.

At times, it's difficult to keep up with the names of the narrator's myriad aunts and the exact relationships of the many other characters. But in recasting a familiar magic-realist project, Isegawa has to be awarded first prize for the innovative introduction of scatological realism. There's a description of mountains of vomit and faeces after the nuptial celebrations of Serenity and Padlock. Later, when the family move to Kampala at the onset of Amin's reign, Mugezi has the enviable task of cleaning the rear ends and resultant waste of his numerous siblings (dubbed "the shitters").

Sex - never described with tenderness - drags along in the wake of baser bodily functions. It's hard to judge how much of this is intended as humour. Perhaps the mountains of shit are odorous metaphors for the state of the nation.

There's humour, though, in Isegawa's depiction of the virulently Catholic Padlock's disdain for her sisters-in-law who convert to Islam or marry Muslims; and, much later, when she blames Uganda's plight on the infidel-like behaviour of its people. By that time, the novel's tone has shifted from scatological to graveyard realism.

Political events in Uganda are meticulously chronicled. Mugezi's promiscuous freedom-fighting Aunt Lwandeka survives the onslaught of the Amin years, but soon after finding happiness with a new husband she succumbs to Aids. Padlock and Serenity are done to death by, respectively, a buffalo and a crocodile. Mugezi, while he weathers the hazards of successive regimes, loses his virginity to a married Muslim neighbour, inadvertently sleeps with his half-sister, and somehow manages to get himself an education and a career.

In the post-Amin years, to escape the Aids crisis, he makes a deal with an aid agency involved in child porn. It sends him to Amsterdam, where he ends up working in cemeteries, digging up old bones.

Isegawa's style is an intriguing and at times baffling mixture of exuberance on the one hand, and, on the other, a hard, journalistic realism, which dramatises its scornful insights in language rarely less than elegant. On the evidence of this ambitious but over-long first novel, his greater talent is in the realistic depiction of expatriation and the untidily hybrid nature of the new Europe. In the final fifth of Abyssinian Chronicles, we see the skeleton of a powerful short novel he may yet clothe in flesh.

Aamer Hussein's 'This Other Salt' is published by Saqi

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