Monday, 30 June 2014

The Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa (4/5)

First published: 1998
Page count: 462

The back says: The voice we hear is that of Mugezi, a quick-witted, sharp-eyed man whose life encompasses the ancient and the modern, peace and insane violence, despotism and democracy. Born in a rural village in the early 1960s, coming of age in the capital city of Kampala, he serves in the army, marries, divorces, and in 1985 emigrates to the Netherlands. Through him we witness the quotidian richness of Ugandan life as well as the most brutal political horrors. Revolution, and the reign of Idi Amin and its chaotic aftermath, act as the backdrop to Mugezi’s life and to the wider drama of family, friends, and foes, in both Uganda and the Netherlands.

I say: When I started reading this I was gushing about it to anyone willing to listen (which was basically my mother, bless her) and now that I have finished it I am no longer quite sure how I feel.

This is what happens when a book starts of as a brilliant masterpiece that sadly fizzles into mediocre in the end.

The first 300 or so pages are the makings of a family tale of epic proportions. We have three generations that are trying to navigate through life in Uganda to the best of their abilities, using fanatical religion, witchcraft, politics, love, hate, blackmail and pretty much anything to get what they want - and to keep their enemies from having it. As our narrator we have Mugezi (who starts out as one of the most sympathetic and lovable characters I’ve even encountered, only to end up disappointing me) weaving in out of his family’s history and future in a seemingly haphazard fashion that allowed opinions about circumstances and characters to change as we were given more and more information. His mother (one of the worst characters I’ve ever read) hates him and beats him mercilessly, while his father tries his best not to interfere. Rarely have two characters brought out so much anger and frustration in me as Mugezi’s parents did.

The despots, as he calls them.

After about 300 pages or so the story lost my interest nearly completely. I saw a boy and young man that I admired turn into a man that I didn’t like. Understandably, people change along the way, but it felt like the essence of Mugezi disappeared, and consequently I no longer cared what happened to him. His life in the Netherlands transformed this beautifully humorous tale into any other story about the life of the migrant.

I was disappointed.

Prior to that, though, this is one of the best stories I’ve encountered. For me, it may be an imagined nostalgia of a Uganda I never got to experience – a Uganda that my parents have spoken so often about – that made me fall so much in love with it, but it is also Isegawa’s stunning prose and hilarious observations. It’s been a long time since a book made me laugh out loud as much as this did.

Or hate as intensely.

So, 4/5 because of the disappointing end and I genuinely feel like reading it all over again right now.

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