By Moses Isegawa
Knopf, $24, 272 pages
REVIEWED BY SUDIP BOSE
The rise to power of Idi Amin in January 1971 marked the beginning of the most terrifying and violent period in Uganda’s history. Between the time he seized control of Milton Obote’s socialist government and the time he himself was ousted, by Julius Nyerere’s invading Tanzanian forces in 1979, some 500,000 Ugandans had been slaughtered.
Nobody was safe from the dictator’s fickle, paranoid wrath. Judges, bureaucrats, professors, priests, political rivals, wives, members of Mr. Obote’s old regime — all were targeted by Amin’s notorious, bloodthirsty killing squads.
The nightmarish world of Amin’s Uganda is the setting for Moses Isegawa’s uneven second novel. The book’s protagonist, Bat Katanga, having returned to Uganda from Cambridge University, secures a bureaucratic post in the ministry of power and communications and is charged with fixing a government that is chaotic, corrupt, and grossly inefficient.
Bat is full of optimism, dreaming of the wealth he hopes to accumulate, and the arc of the novel describes his startling ascendancy, “his triumphant entry into the bastions of power” and then his very predictable decline, from innocence to experience, from young optimist to a man defeated, “drenched in sweat on the edge of despair, with the look of madness or grief in his eyes.”
One of the instruments of this decline is violence, an almost unspeakable violence that is hinted at on the novel’s first page, when Bat is being interviewed for his new post by Uganda’s minister of power and communications, Gen. Samson Bazooka Ondogar, aboard a military helicopter, its “spinning blades like whirling knives.”
There’s an important spatial dimension, as well, to this image of Bat and the corrupt Bazooka soaring above the Ugandan countryside. The general (a kind of Ugandan Tony Soprano) has attained considerable status in his life; he lives, so to speak, in the clouds.
This is what Bat wants, too — “the possibility of upward mobility”; here, in the first pages of the novel, Bat gets a metaphorical taste of such mobility while traveling far above the earth’s surface. To be airborne is to be invincible, powerful, able to rise up above the earthbound and the helpless, and to survey it all with detachment.
Even when on the ground, Bat craves motion and speed, which often veers into recklessness. We see a very confident Bat, unaware that Bazooka has set him up for a terrific fall, waking “early each morning, [driving] to the city, outracing most cars on the way, and [arriving] at his office with the high of speed still fizzing in his blood.”
With this same disregard for consequences does he embark on a relationship with Victoria Kayiwa, who — unbeknownst to him — has been sent by the general to spy on him, a woman whose job it is to entrap political subversives.
Victoria, though her intentions are hardly pure at the start, ends up falling for Bat, viewing him as “her godsent deliverer” who might rescue her from the world of evil she inhabits. But after getting her pregnant, Bat casts Victoria aside for another woman.
(Despite the horrible things that happen to Bat in “Snakepit,” it is hard to sympathize with him; he is self-absorbed, careless, and not especially likeable, and though his abandonment of Victoria can be understood, that of his daughter, whom he ignores for the duration of the novel, is far more difficult to fathom.)
At first, Bat is idealistic, removed from the corruption of Idi Amin’s government, but soon he accepts a bribe from a Saudi prince, and his descent into despair begins.
Bazooka has Bat kidnapped and detained in the basement of Uganda’s parliament building, where for months, Bat lives among prisoners being tortured and killed. His spirit is broken. His family knows nothing of his whereabouts.
Bazooka’s jealousy stems mainly from Bat’s ethnicity. Bat hails from the South, Bazooka from the North. Indeed, one of Mr. Isegawa’s subjects is the consequences of class division, the barriers between Northerners (who mainly filled the ranks of the military) and Southerners (who went to work in the civil service and who tended to be more educated), between yes-men and intellectuals, between the poor and the privileged.
Southerners “always seemed to have everything [Bazooka] dreamed of: the power, the houses, the cars, the land, the style.” That Bat succeeds in cleaning up the disastrous bureaucratic mess of Uganda’s government only infuriates the general further: “How he would have loved it if a tribesman, a man he could trust 100 percent, had been the agent of this change!”
Mr. Isegawa dramatizes many of the tensions that characterized the immediate years of post-colonial black Africa. How does one reconcile, for example, the pursuit of a glittering modern life (the cars, the Learjets, the gold watches, the Armani suits) with a consuming faith in the superstitions of an earlier age?
Astrology is the unofficial state religion in Mr. Isegawa’s novel, with witch doctors and soothsayers playing a crucial role in Amin’s daily life. When Dr. Ali, Amin’s personal astrologer, examines the livers of slaughtered bulls, we are reminded of the diviners of antiquity, who searched for omens in the organs of animals, but who did so clad in tunics, not in Italian suits.
What detracts from the novel is Mr. Isegawa’s irritating reliance on cliche: “silence descended like a curtain”; “rags-to-riches world”; “General Bazooka could hardly believe his eyes”; “the silence in the house [was] charged like a ton of dynamite”; “in his heart of hearts he knew that she wanted to die.”
There are awkward passages (such as the description of Bat and his old Cambridge friend Damon Villeneuve sitting in a London restaurant, suddenly breaking out into a rousing version of a Rolling Stones song) and awkward metaphors (“their bombs would be double-edged swords”).
Perhaps most unfortunate is the rapid shift in point of view; the narrative is told from several perspectives, including those of Victoria, Bazooka, Dr. Ali, the mercenary Robert Ashes, the suitor of Bat’s sister, even Idi Amin. Bat’s story, which is the most compelling, tends to get lost as a result.
And yet, Mr. Isegawa is capable of some very moving writing, especially when he is describing the beauties of his native Uganda, marred by dictators and the blood they spill. At the end of the novel, Victoria, who has caused much of Bat’s suffering but who suffers greatly as well, finds herself escaping Uganda:
“The more she pushed west, the bigger the hills became, till they metamorphosed into mountain ranges, with one higher than the other, caught in the blue skies and the hovering mist and clouds … She was now in the region of the earth’s tectonic plates. She could see the snow-capped Rwenzori lost in the clouds.
“To the north and south were a chain of breathtaking crater lakes. Nearby was a hot spring, and valleys carpeted with tea plantations … Here in the west, away from the city, with roads leading to Zaire, to Rwanda, to Tanzania, anything was possible.”
Victoria has left the world of men, of cities and corruption, and entered a kind of primordial realm, of crater lakes and hot springs governed only by the geological whims of the earth. “The smell of the lake, the magic of the trees, the flavour of the fish” — these elusive things remind us of an Edenic land.
The images of the snake and the snakepit, then — suggested not only in the novel’s title but elsewhere as well — are terribly important to understanding the world Mr. Isegawa has tried to recreate. They remind us how easily paradise can be spoiled when man is faced with temptation.
Sudip Bose is a senior editor at Preservation magazine in Washington.