Friday, August 21, 2009

Snakepit - Moses Isegawa

" We all have things to regret; it is the human condition, General. Maybe you more than I. I have one rule in life: I don't look back. That is how I have survived to reach this age. Somebody blasts me, I blast back. If I don't, I have myself to blame. If one day you become president, send a whole battalion of your sharpshooters to arrest me. If you send boys, I will kill them all, and you wouldn't want to begin your reign with burials, would you? "

It is the common story of all the countries under military dictatorship. We have heard similar stories in many forms. The actions are the same, only the name and country differ. Military coup, followed by mass murder, exodus, violence, loot, abduction, missing civilians, torture, rebellion, which invariably ends ( or restarts) with yet another coup.

Uganda was in the forefront of the news in the 70's and for the notorious ruler called Idi Amin. Arguably one of the most murderous of the rulers in the second half of the 20th century ( 3,00,000 to 5,00,000 people were afraid to have been killed during his regime).

Moses Isegawa, an Ugandan born writer, takes us through the Uganda during the 8 year old regime. This is not a recollection of historical event, but a novel set at these times. Bat Katanga, newly graduated from Cambridge returns to his homeland in search of job and fortune, to serve the new regime. He believed, that the newly emerging Uganda is more lucrative for his career to the safe havens of west. It took less than a week for him to land in a dream role under the ministry of power controlled by General Bazooka. A government mansion on the lake side, envious sports car, a powerful job , he had all that one looks for early in life. Soon, his name was the talk in the higher circle , for his efficient way of handling the business, his intelligence and dedication. Other ministries was in need of him, permanently or on a short term assignment. The pride of General Bazooka, soon become his worry. Victoria, a close confidante of General Bazooka was soon entrusted with a task of shadowing him and tracking him. Victoria and Bat soon fallen for each others charm, and 'barren' lady become the mother of Bat's child.

But the situation is not all that safe for General Bazooka. Once the second in command, the right hand man of Marshal Amin, is now not in favour of the Marshal. A British mercenary called Robert Ashes, had better access to the Marshal, and was given the all important role of anti- smuggling unit , taken away from General Bazooka. Robert Ashes influence of Amin is increased day by day, so is the power struggle and rivalry between him and General Bazooka. Each fought a proxy war of abducting and torturing, each others men.

Bat's relationship with Victoria soured after the entrance of Babit to the scene. Soon, Victoria was thrown out of the house, replacing her with Babit. In the power struggle between the General Bazooka and Marshal Amin, Bat is taken as prisoner for his alleged involvement in corruption in an equipment deal involving Saudi Royal family. While the detention and torture continued, Bat gets his release after 6 months, after the intervention by his friend, a member of British Parliament, giving a moral victory to Robert Ashes.

"How does it feel to be back?" the Professor asked.
"Feels like f***. I dont have a job to wake up to, no home, no guards. I am a bit afraid of soldiers now. I am a bit afraid of you. I am a bit afraid of myself. It is great, isn't it?"
The situation turns worse in Uganda, after Bat's brother aligned himself with the revolutionaries, and start bombing key locations and blowing up the cars of prominent people, including that of the wife of General Bazooka. Victoria has her revenge by sending people to kill Babit. Though caught and tried under civilian court, she was left free with the intervention of General Bazooka. As the unrest increased in the country, General Bazooka sets the trap for Robert Ashes, partially succeeding. Though he could not finish his rival as planned, Robert Ashes escaped the attempt and flee to South Africa, settling in his farm. General Bazooka too ends his life after he lost his wife and children ( disappeared without trace), while the fearsome Marshal Amin leave the country and new regime takes control.

This is not a story of Amin, not a story of Bat Katanga or about General Bazooka. It is the Uganda in the 70s under Idi Amin, and all these characters are replica of the real events that might have happened there. That is the positive and the short coming of the novel. While the author is able to portray the life of fear and uncertainty, keeping the reader on the edge, the fragmented narration moving from one character to another ( as the centre of action) does loose the continuity or flow in the story. For a while the story was around Bat and his experience, soon taking it on the power struggle between General Bazooka and Robert Ashes , into the fortune teller Dr.Ali and Marshal Amin.

Action packed, horror filled tale told in crisp pace and fluid use of language. Marshal Idi Amin is an omnipresent figure in the story ( rarely appearing himself) but the rest are characters derived/adapted from real life people. Very powerful, dark and intense novel of Uganda portrayed brilliantly.

Moses Isegawa
Alfred A Knopf, Publisher , NewYork
259 Pages
Read More : Complete Review, New York Review of Books

1 comment:

Randy said...


Great review.I will try his Abyssinian Chronicles. There are going to be a LOT of exciting voices emerging out of Africa. I am really keen to discover new African fiction.