Isegawa, Moses 1963-
ISEGAWA, Moses 1963-
PERSONAL: Born 1963, in Uganda; immigrated to the Netherlands, 1990.
ADDRESSES: Home—Amsterdam, Netherlands. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Knopf/Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as a history teacher in Uganda prior to 1990.
Abessijnse kronieken (novel), [Netherlands], 1998, translated as Abyssinian Chronicles, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Snakepit (novel; originally published in the Netherlands, 1999), Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Abessijnse kronieken, the debut novel by Moses Isegawa, a Ugandan who immigrated to Amsterdam, was first published in Dutch and later translated into many languages, including English. The protagonist of Abyssinian Chronicles was born John Chrysostom Noel to parents Serenity and Padlock, but he has taken the African name of Mugezi. The title of the book refers to Serenity's theory that Uganda, not Ethiopia, is the site of the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia. While he is a child during the 1960s, Mugezi's parents move to the capital city of Kampala, and he and his siblings stay behind with a loving great-aunt he comes to call grandmother. After she dies in a fire following the coup that brings General Idi Amin to power, they join their parents in the capital. Mugezi comes to see his cruel parents as dictators, like Amin, and identifies with the man who defies the British and the West, and whose punishments he would like to replicate within his own family.
World and I reviewer Charles R. Larson noted that in the first chapters of Abyssinian Chronicles "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."
Mugezi's humanity is forever numbed by his childhood experiences. For a short time, he seeks escape in a Catholic seminary, but he finds it to be another form of imprisonment and leaves. When the brutal dictator Amin is forced into exile, the country, like Mugezi, is left adrift. He goes from being a law student to teaching, brewing beer, and anything else that will earn him money. He exploits others, including his sexual partners, and when the war ends, he goes to work for the Ministry of Rehabilitation, where he keeps for himself many of the fees he collects on behalf of the government. AIDS, first identified as a form of witchcraft, soon becomes the scourge of Uganda, and strikes down huge numbers of people, including members of Mugezi's family. He flees to Amsterdam, where he becomes the gigolo of a rich Dutch woman, a relationship that ends at the conclusion of the book.African Business reviewer Stephen Williams said of Abyssinian Chronicles that, "with its sharp wit, acute detail, and expressive energy, it must rate as one of the finest first novels to appear for many years." Nation contributor Matt Steinglass noted that after immigrating to Holland, Isegawa, like Mugezi in the final chapters of the novel, criticized the left-wing Dutch society and denounced the West for the loans he said would further bankrupt African countries. In 2001, he published an essay titled "Two Chimpanzees," in which he alleged that the United States had deliberately spread AIDS and that humanitarian immunization programs had destroyed the immune systems of Africans. "Isegawa's enormous literary talent began to be overshadowed by his politics," noted Steinglass.
According to Steinglass, Isegawa's second novel, Snakepit, "has all of the earlier book's bitterness and little of its sweetness. As its title suggests, this is a slimy, tortuous, poisonous book." The major protagonist, Bat Katanga, returns to Kampala in 1972 after completing his postgraduate work in mathematics at Cambridge University. The ambitious Bat is put in charge of the country's power industry by Amin's deputy, General Bazooka, and he enjoys all of the perquisites of this position, including a large mansion, fast car, and Victoria, a beautiful mistress. Victoria is actually a plant who is being used to destroy Bat, but she falls in love with him and they have a daughter. When she becomes too possessive, Bat leaves her to live with his simple village wife. He is imprisoned when General Bazooka incorrectly thinks Bat is a spy for Bazooka's rival, British mercenary Robert Ashes, a man who works for British intelligence who has become Amin's close confidant. Bazooka, an illiterate murderer, is a major figure in the story, and it is through his eyes that much of the history of the book unfolds.
Steinglass wrote that Snakepit "moves at breakneck speed" and "reads like a magical-realist Tom Clancy thriller, with far more violence and no good guys." He criticized the plot on a number of points, including the fact that neither Bat nor Bazooka "seems to make any intellectual or emotional headway." Steinglass felt that the book's shortcomings are somehow connected to Isegawa's critical attitude toward both his European and African audiences. "The problem of European-African relations is sitting in his mind like a bull in a hut [a reference to a metaphor used in the book]. With any luck, once he works through it, or stops thinking about it, he will go on to produce another great novel." A Publishers Weekly contributor called Snakepit "a headlong and blurry novel filled with violence and sex, deceit and revenge—a messy, captivating portrait of a desperate time and place."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
African Business, January, 2001, Stephen Williams, review of Abyssinian Chronicles, p. 40.
Black Issues Book Review, November, 2000, R. Scott Heath and Kelly Ellis, review of Abyssinian Chronicles, p. 24.
Booklist, June 1, 2000, Frank Caso, review of Abyssinian Chronicles, p. 1857; February 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Snakepit, p. 1036.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2004, review of Snakepit, p. 55.
Library Journal, May 15, 2000, Ellen Flexman, review of Abyssinian Chronicles, p. 125; March 15, 2004, Lawrence Rungren, review of Snakepit, p. 105.
Nation, April 5, 2004, Matt Steinglass, review of Snakepit, p. 32.
Publishers Weekly, February 9, 2004, review of Snakepit, p. 55.
Time, July 10, 2000, Paul Gray, review of Abyssinian Chronicles, p. 104.
World and I, November, 2000, Charles R. Larson, review of Abyssinian Chronicles, p. 243.
World Literature Today, summer-autumn, 2001, Ronny Noor, review of Abyssinian Chronicles, p. 127.*