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Abyssinian Chronicles: A Novel

Abyssinian Chronicles: A Novel

4.0 1
by Moses Isegawa

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Like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Moses Isegawa's Abyssinian Chronicles tells a riveting story of twentieth-century Africa that is passionate in vision and breathtaking in scope.

At the center of this unforgettable tale is Mugezi, a young man who manages to make it


Like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Moses Isegawa's Abyssinian Chronicles tells a riveting story of twentieth-century Africa that is passionate in vision and breathtaking in scope.

At the center of this unforgettable tale is Mugezi, a young man who manages to make it through the hellish reign of Idi Amin and experiences firsthand the most crushing aspects of Ugandan society: he withstands his distant father's oppression and his mother's cruelty in the name of Catholic zeal, endures the ravages of war, rape, poverty, and AIDS, and yet he is able to keep a hopeful and even occasionally amusing outlook on life. Mugezi's hard-won observations form a cri de coeur for a people shaped by untold losses.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Precious few first novels are as phantasmagoric or as haunting as this one."—Time

"His story has a strange amoral power, an immediacy and raw energy that capture the mood of the times."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"This big, transcendently ambitious book offers an unparalleled picture of a culture in crisis.... Brimming with vividly rendered scenes."—The Boston Globe

Time Out Magazine
As Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was for modern India, Abyssinian Chronicles will likely prove to be a breakthrough book for Uganda.
Black Issue Book Review
Like the tactile weight of morsels being passed from hand to mouth, Isegawa feeds readers grains of wisdom in the form of well-placed words and deeds. Half a globe away, this gesture resonates and speaks through a diaspora of truth-telling as he delivers a pure philosophy wrapped in the guise of fictive prose. Having come of age within the tightly measured boundaries of a newly independent state, Isegawa’s narrator conveys a self-reflective tale of passion and regret that crosses continents and generations. From the conflict-ridden Uganda of Idi Amin and his successors, to the expatriate ghettos of 1980s Amsterdam, the young protagonist, Mugezi is a reluctant witness to the sometimes grisly ties that bind. ...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Abyssinia may have become present-day Ethiopia, but the title of Isegawa's debut actually refers to Uganda--a "land of false bottoms where under every abyss there was another one waiting to ensnare people." Set in the postcolonial 1970s and '80s, when power struggles are the order of the day, the book is a bildungsroman following the life of narrator Mugezi Muwaabi, as he plots his own independence from tyrannical rulers (his parents) and capitalizes on his considerable natural resources of charm and intelligence. Isegawa clearly means for Mugezi's story to parallel Uganda's, so he devotes much of the book to an almost journalistic account of national politics--General Idi Amin's rise to power, and his subsequent ouster at the hands of deposed president Milton Obote. But apart from the intended echoes, these passages have little direct bearing on Mugezi's life, and sap the narrative of momentum and vitality. The novel is strongest when it concentrates on Mugezi's antics: he torments his mother by stealing the bobbin from her sewing machine, and breaks the will of one strict priest by smearing excrement on his treasured car. These and other scenes create a coming-of-age story that traces the shifting balance of power in any relationship. Isegawa's language is overheated at times, but it also yields gems, as when Mugezi's grandfather asks for a shave: "The razor crackled and filled with stubble as I dragged it across valleys and ridges. Birds chirped fussily in the tallest gray-skinned mtuba trees. They jumped up and down on one branch." Such keen observations go further toward depicting Uganda than the dry history lessons, but luckily there are many gorgeous passages throughout to offset the distancing effect of Isegawa's sometimes overextended reach. (June) FYI: A Ugandan native, Isegawa is now a Dutch citizen living in Amsterdam. This book was originally published in the Netherlands in 1998. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Set amid the turmoil and tyranny of his native Uganda, Isegawa's first novel is a dramatic and lyrical saga told with compassion and an eye for the truth. Mugezi's life is subject to fanaticism and abuse: his parents treat him like a slave, the seminary priests seek to break his will, and his beloved grandmother is murdered by political thugs when Idi Amin comes to power. Through cunning and subtlety, Mugezi struggles to break free of his oppressors and exact a measure of revenge. His story mirrors that of the Ugandan people, who have tried to survive and even profit during civil war, turmoil, and the AIDS epidemic. Isegawa's characters are flesh-and-bone people who manage to love, raise children, live full lives amid the madness, and engage the reader to the final page. Reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, the straightforward prose and strong plot make this a fine story. Highly recommended.--Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Paul Gray
Precious few first novels are as phantasmagoric or as haunting as this one.
Time Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
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 ratherhurriedfinal 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.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
5.16(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.97(d)

Read an Excerpt

1971: Village Days
Three final images flashed across Serenity's mind as he disappeared into the jaws of the colossal crocodile: a rotting buffalo with rivers of maggots and armies of flies emanating from its cavities; the aunt of his missing wife, who was also his longtime lover; and the mysterious woman who had cured his childhood obsession with tall women. The few survivors of my father's childhood years remembered that up until the age of seven, he would run up to every tall woman he saw passing by and, in a gentle voice trembling with unspeakable expectation, say, "Welcome home, Ma. You were gone so long I was afraid you would never return." Taken by surprise, the woman would smile, pat him on the head, and watch him wring his hands before letting him know that he had once again made a mistake. The women in his father's homestead, assisted by some of the villagers, tried to frighten him into quitting by saying that one day he would run into a ghost disguised as a tall woman, which would take him away and hide him in a very deep hole in the ground. They could have tried milking water from a stone with better results. Serenity, a wooden expression on his face, just carried on running up to tall women and getting disappointed by them.
Until one hot afternoon in 1940 when he ran up to a woman who neither smiled nor patted him on the head; without even looking at him, she took him by the shoulders and pushed him away. This mysterious curer of his obsession won herself an eternal place in his heart. He never ran up to tall women again, and he would not talk about it, not even when Grandma, his only paternal aunt, promised to buy him sweets. He coiled into his inner cocoon, from whose depths he rejected all efforts at consolation. A smooth, self-contained indifference descended on his face so totally that he won himself the name Serenity, shortened to "Sere."
Serenity's mother, the woman who in his mind had metamorphosed into all those strange tall women, had abandoned him when he was three, ostensibly to go to the distant shops beyond Mpande Hill where big purchases were made. She never returned. She also left behind two girls, both older than Serenity, who adjusted to her absence with great equanimity and could not bear his obsession with tall women.
In an ideal situation, Serenity should have come first—everyone wanted a son for the up-and-coming subcounty chief Grandpa was at the time—but girls kept arriving, two dying soon after birth in circumstances reeking of maternal desperation. By the time Serenity was born, his mother had decided to leave. Everyone expected her to have another son as a backup, for an only son was a candle in a storm. The pressure reached a new peak when it became known that she was pregnant again. Speculation was rife: Would it be a boy or a girl, would it live or die, was it Grandpa's or did it belong to the man she was deeply in love with? Before anybody could find out the truth, she left. But her luck did not hold—three months into her new life, her uterus burst, and she bled to death on the way to the hospital, her life emptying into the backseat of a rotten Morris Minor.
As time passed, Serenity crawled deeper into his cocoon, avoiding his aunts, his cousins, and his mother's replacements, who he felt hated him for being the heir apparent to his father's estate and the miles of fertile clan land it included. The birth of Uncle Kawayida, his half-brother by a Muslim woman his father was seeing on the side, did not lessen Serenity's estrangement. Kawayida, due to the circumstances of his birth, posed little threat to Serenity's position, and thus attitudes remained unchanged. To escape the phantoms which galloped in his head and the contaminated air in his father's compound, Serenity roamed the surrounding villages. He spent a lot of time at the home of the Fiddler, a man with large feet, a large laugh and sharp onion breath who serenaded Grandpa on the weekends when he was home.

Serenity could not get over the way the Fiddler walked with legs wide apart. It would have been very impolite to ask the man why he walked that way, and Serenity feared that if he asked his children, they would tell their father, who in turn would report him to his father for punishment. Consequently, he turned to his aunt with the question "Why does the Fiddler have breasts between his legs?"
"Who said the Fiddler had breasts between his legs?"
"Have you never noticed the way he walks?"
"How does he walk?"
"With legs spread wide apart as if he were carrying two jackfruits under his tunic." He then gave a demonstration, very exaggerated, of the way the man walked.
"It is very funny, but I have never noticed it," Grandma said, humoring him the way adults did to get out of a sticky situation.
"How could you not have noticed? He has large breasts between his legs."
"The Fiddler has no breasts between his legs. He is ill. He has got mpanama."
Serenity's sisters somehow got wind of the duckwalk and could not resist telling their village peers and schoolmates about the Fiddler, his breasts, and the little clown who portrayed him in silly mimicries. As a result, Serenity got the nickname Mpanama, a ghastly sounding word used out of adult hearing that dropped from gleeful lips with the wet slap of dung hitting hard ground from the rear of a half-constipated cow. Once again he was cured of an obsession, though he continued with his visits to the poor man's home, faintly hoping to catch him pissing or, better still, squatting on the latrine, for he really wanted to see if the Fiddler's breasts were as large and smooth as those of the women in his father's homestead.
Apart from his secret fantasy, Serenity also wanted to learn how to play the fiddle. He could not get over the one-stringed moans, groans, sighs, screams, grunts and other peculiar sounds the Fiddler conjured, squeezed and rubbed out of the little instrument. The Fiddler's visits formed the high point of his week, and the music was the only thing he listened to with pleasure uncoerced or influenced by adults or peers. He wanted to learn how to hold the instrument proudly against his shoulder and tune the string with a knot of wax. His aim was to charm strange women into his magic circle and keep them rooted there for as long as he wanted. In school he was known for his beautiful pencil drawings of fiddles. His wish never came true.
Grandpa, a Catholic, was unseated and replaced by a Protestant rival in a contest marred by religious sectarianism. As the fifties ended, his power gone and the heart taken out of his life, Grandpa's homestead shrivelled as relatives, friends and hangers-on left one by one or in little groups. The women dropped out of his life, and the Fiddler took his talent elsewhere. By the time I was the age Serenity was when he ran up to strange tall women, Grandpa was living alone, sharing his house with the occasional visitor, relative or woman, a few rats, spiders and the odd snake that sloughed behind his heaps of coffee sacks.
Grandma, his only surviving sister, was also living alone, three football fields away. Serenity's bachelor house, a trim little thing standing on land donated by both Grandpa and Grandma, separated the two homesteads. It was a sleepy little house, now and then kicked from the slumber of disintegration, swept and cleaned to accommodate a visitor, or just to limit the damage wreaked by termites and other destroyers. It only came alive when Serenity's sisters or Uncle Kawayida visited and hurricane lamps washed it with golden beams. The voices and laughter made the rafters quiver, and the smoke from the open fire wound long spectacular threads round the roof and touched off distant memories.
The exodus of wives, relatives, friends and hangers-on had left a big howling lacuna which wrapped the homestead in webs of glorious nostalgia. The fifties and sixties were spanned by that nostalgia and provided us with stories pickled, polished and garnished by memory. Every migrant soul was now a compact little ghost captured in words, invoked from the lacuna by the oracle of Grandpa and Grandma and made to inject doses of old life into our present truncated existence. The hegemony of lacuna'd ghosts in their stories was broken only when the characters, like resurrected souls, braved the dangerous slopes of Mpande Hill and the treacherous papyrus swamps to come and state their case in person. The Fiddler never returned, but was most prevalent because he was immortalized by the poor rendition of his songs Grandpa showered on his homestead as he shaved, as he toured his coffee plantation—the shamba—to supervise work, as he reminisced in the shade and as he wondered how to get a young girl with an old soul to see him through his last days.

What People are Saying About This

Francine Prose
"Epic, sprawling, brimming with life--and death, Moses Isegawa's Abyssinian Chronicles blasts open the tidy borders of the conventional novel and redraws the literary map to reveal a whole new world...Eloquent, harrowing, and compulsively readable . . . Heavily populated with distinct, memorable characters, teeming with subplots, love affairs and vendettas, the novel begins in the African equivalent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Macondo--equally exotic, equally under the spell of Catholicism and superstition, of romantic longings and sexual obsessions, of magical prophecy and gritty postcolonial reality . . . Isegawa's writing is so assured and seductive, his deployment of humor, incident, and detail so simultaneously freewheeling and controlled that we're deeply involved in the life of this family . . . By then, it's way to late to stop reading, and we can only hang on for the thrilling and nightmarish ride into, and out of, the whirlwind that swept through the far-away country that Moses Isegawa makes so vivid, so immediate -- and so heartbreakingly real."

Meet the Author

Moses Isegawa was born in Uganda. He lives in the Netherlands.

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Abyssinian Chronicles 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago