This briskly paced comic epic recounts in lavishly imagined detail its sly narrator Mugezi’s upbringing in 1960s Uganda, struggles with demands imposed by his sprawling extended family and divided country, and eventual escape to the mixed blessings of sanctuary in Amsterdam.
Isegawa, who is himself now a citizen of the Netherlands (where this debut novel first appeared, in a Dutch translation), has attempted a saga akin to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: an ironical bildungsroman that’s also a full-scale portrayal of a traditional society in flux and in crisis. Mugezi’s tale begins with fetchingly seriocomic vignettes of village life with his father Serenity, a frequently overemotional paranoid autodidact; unloving puritanical mother (whose virga intacta state on her wedding night earned her the nickname “Padlock”); and formidable “Grandpa,” a former prosperous “subcounty chief,” among other lively reality instructors. After his family moves to Kampala, the devoutly Catholic Padlock unloads (her despised eldest) Mugezi on a seminary, itself a disciplinarian microcosm of the nation now ruled by “benevolent” dictator Idi Amin. As Amin’s abuses provoke guerrilla resistance and a debilitating war with Tanzania, plus a legacy of continuing chaos, the resourceful Mugezi lives by his wits as a brilliant student (not above misusing his intelligence for profit), schoolteacher and part-time liquor brewer, black-marketer, and hopeful emigrant who’s chastened to find himself involved in “international beggary, image pillage and necrophilic exploitation.” Not to worry: he’s a survivor—as the rather hurried final one hundred or so pages make clear. Isegawa tells Mugezi’s story with a remarkable combination of panache and keen sociopolitical insight, stumbling only in his tendency to spell out the meaning of his novel’s original and distinctive content (for example, Mugezi’s combative responses to Padlock’s relentless cruelties are too obviously linked to Uganda’s endless sufferings). But the abundance of boldly drawn characters and original narrative inventions make such flaws seem barely worth mentioning.
Overall, one of the most impressive works of fiction to have ever come out of Africa. A spectacular debut performance.