The title of Ugandan-born Isegawa’s successor to his well-received Abyssinian Chronicles (2000) vividly suggests the quality of life in his homeland during the brutal military dictatorship of Idi Amin.
The story itself is a panorama initially focused on two ambitious men: Cambridge-educated Bat Katanga, who returns to Uganda in the early 1970s to seek a civil service job, and General Samson Bazooka Ondogar, who directs Amin’s murderous Anti-Smuggling Unit. Bat is (rather improbably) given a high-echelon executive position in the Ministry of Power and Communication, swiftly acquires influence and wealth, and attracts the love of Victoria, a brainy beauty who is Ondogar’s former mistress, and the “decoy” he employs to keep tabs on upwardly mobile underlings (like Bat). In swiftly paced juxtapositions that gradually expand to include numerous other characters variously involved with these three, Isegawa assembles a devastating portrait of a paranoid society riddled with rivalries and enmities and fuelled by quests for one-upmanship and revenge. Victoria bears Bat a daughter, but is discarded when he falls in love with village girl Babit. Attending a trade conference in Saudi Arabia, Bat is persuaded to accept a bribe from a power-hungry Arab billionaire, and his privileged life begins unraveling. Ondogar crosses swords with white criminal adventurer Robert Ashes, who has rapidly become Amin’s unprincipled strongman and former confidant—and the General also begins to sense his power slipping away. Anti-Amin rebellions multiply, embracing even such obscure citizens as Bat’s brother Tayari, an underachieving “fireworks specialist.” Bat is imprisoned, Victoria takes her vengeance, and the embattled country explodes. Snakepit isn’t well constructed, but its flailing energies create a fascinating narrative texture deepened by Isegawa’s sharp sardonic portrayals of its grasping, desperate characters and brooding empathy with their destroyed culture.
High-octane melodrama bearing a potent political and moral message. Isegawa delivers the goods.