Thursday, November 10

Considering Moses Isegawa's "Abyssinian Chronicles"

There was a bad stretch earlier this year where I wasn't terribly excited about anything I read, but I didn't outright hate of it in the same way I hate Moses Isegawa's Abyssinian Chronicles. There were a number of boring and underwhelming books (cough, The Imperfectionists, cough, A Visit from the Goon Squad) but none of them were detestable. And now, with a month and a half remaining before 2012, Chronicles is the worst novel I've read this year.

There are some technical problems in the writing. The perspective is confused. Ostensibly it's told from the point of view of Mugezi, a boy who comes of age alongside the independent Uganda, but chapters are spent with his parents, Serenity, his withdrawn father, and Padlock, his harsh Catholic mother, and offer information on them that Mugezi could not possibly know. The timeline is confused for the first couple of chapters as Mugezi stops the action to explain the current relationships between characters and has to slide back again to explain how that earlier state of relationships came into being. There is no rising action or climax of which to speak, either. Chronicles also touches a personal gripe of mine as a novel by an author from the developing world who writes first for a developed world audience. Isegawa, born in Uganda but now a Dutch citizen, includes a brief list of "African words" that are hardly even used in the text but immediately defined where they appear and makes sure to always explain Uganda's cultural and political history.

But these are minor things, matters of techniques and personal gripes. They don't make this a terrible novel. The cast of entirely unpleasant characters does. The problem begins with the narrator, Mugezi. Mugezi is filled with hate. He hates his mother for beating him and giving him chores. He hates his father for allowing his mother to treat him as such. He hates the priests at the seminary for keeping the best food for themselves and keeping in budget by feeding the students corn mash. Mugezi takes clandestine vengeance on them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as there is a rich history of literature and film of precocious children and teens playing pranks on their hypocritical elders, but Mugezi's unadulterated and unmoderated hatred poisons it all. He cannot refer to his parents without calling them "despots." He never forgets the colonizing history of the Church and never forgets to mention it in increasingly florid language.

It's like going through a sandblaster of hate, it wears you down, and Mugezi comes out the worse for it. His acts of vengeance include writing a love letter to his mother from an admirer and allowing his father to find it, destroying the headboard to his parents' bed, throwing a bag of human waste at one priest and gouging the boat of another priest. Mugezi's delight in these acts is disturbing, and his lack of self reflection with regard to his own failings including arranging a paid trip to the Netherlands by blackmailing an NGO accused of child pornography and sleeping with girls fleeing civil violence is disgusting. He can't even be bothered to name one of his younger brothers or sisters whom he refers to only as "the shitters."

And yet I read the whole thing, all 462 pages of small type. Part of it is my will to finish everything I start. The greater part of it was the language itself. The grandiosity is staggering. You can literally flip to any page and find a gem like "It made cities retch with the talons of unassuageable pain, and the villages writhe with the stench of green-black diarrhea." or "Loverboy received these morsels of her past with an ironical air, sticking disdainful needles of criticism into the parts which did not appeal to him and rewarding the bits that he liked with loud laughter and corroborating remarks." Chronicles is translated from Dutch, but Isegawa still manages to do one thing right and capture some of the lyricism of East Africa in these lines. Not enough for me to come near liking the novel, but at least something to enjoy and remind me of Kenya in the slog that is the rest of the novel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Relief and solace is on the way, and Chain of Spring Love by Robert Bwire, another Ugandan with Dutch connections, should cheer you through 2012!