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Abyssinian Chronicles

Moses Isegawa

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To purchase Abyssinian Chronicles

Title: Abyssinian Chronicles
Author: Moses Isegawa
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 462 pages
Availability: Abyssinian Chronicles - US
Abyssinian Chronicles - UK
Abyssinian Chronicles - Canada
Chroniques abyssiniennes - France
Abessinische Chronik - Deutschland
  • Though written in English, Abyssinian Chronicles was first published in the Netherlands in 1998, as Abessijne kronieken.

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Our Assessment:

A- : obstinate, ambitious, edgy novel of modern Uganda -- dark and often bitter, but a powerful read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 15/1/2001 Lorenzo Ravagli
The Guardian . 17/11/2000 Maya Jaggi
The Independent B+ 21/10/2000 Aamer Hussein
The NY Rev. of Books C 30/11/2000 Hilary Mantel
The NY Times B 23/6/2000 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B 2/7/2000 Richard Eder
The Observer A 12/11/2000 Christina Patterson
Salon B 27/6/2000 Anderson Tepper
St. Louis Post-Dispatch A- 4/6/2000 Peter Wolfe
The Spectator C+ 2/12/2000 Steve King
Süddeutsche Zeitung B+ 4/2/2000 Peter Michalzik
Sunday Telegraph A 29/4/2001 Andrew Biswell
Time A 10/7/2000 Paul Gray
TLS A- 20/10/2000 Annmarie S. Drury
World & I . 11/2000 Charles R. Larson

  Review Consensus:

  Vivid book about Uganda, though much of it is overwrought and overwritten

  From the Reviews:
  • "Der Roman überzeugt nicht durch komplexe Konstruktion oder durch atemraubende Spannungsbögen, sondern durch seinen Reichtum an Anekdoten, durch die Kaskaden von Miniaturen -- und den Willen seines Protagonisten, den tausend Wechselfällen des Lebens zu trotzen.(...) Isegawa verfügt über ein beeindruckendes Erzähltalent." - Lorenzo Ravagli, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Mugezi's watchful, sly intelligence and acerbic, sometimes lacerating tone dominate the novel, in which his coming of age keeps pace with the country's. (...) Unsurprisingly given the novel's breadth (Mugezi's affairs with Dutch women perhaps warrant a book in themselves), there is an unevenness in pace and tone. (...) While the prose can be overwritten (...), Isegawa's talent lies in his mordant perspective, his imagery and freshness of language" - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian

  • "Isegawa's style is an intriguing and at times baffling mixture of exuberance on the one hand, and, on the other, a hard, journalistic realism, which dramatises its scornful insights in language rarely less than elegant. On the evidence of this ambitious but over-long first novel, his greater talent is in the realistic depiction of expatriation and the untidily hybrid nature of the new Europe." - Aamer Hussein, The Independent

  • "(Isegawa's) book is in fact a realist narrative, dressed up in ornate language and overblown conceits, an earth-bound machine with a few outboard devices designed to make it airborne: the more devices he bolts on, the heavier it becomes. Nothing in his text eludes our first comprehension. Nothing invites our second glance." - Hilary Mantel, The New York Review of Books

  • "Unfortunately for the reader, Mugezi's accounts of his travails at home and school quickly grow long-winded. (...) When Mugezi looks beyond the suffocating world of his own travails, however, he proves himself a perceptive observer." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "(Isegawa's) book is also gaudy, sporadically brilliant, disjointed and often tongue-tied by writing that alternates between an absorbingly straightforward account of Uganda's recent history and a lumpy porridge of ornate venting." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Abyssinian Chronicles is, in every sense, a big book, exploding with big themes and a rich cast of colourful characters. Giles Foden's superb 1998 novel The Last King of Scotland offered a convincing glimpse of Amin's torturous regime, but Isegawa's work suggests a passionate immersion in his country's history that few Europeans could match. (...) (M)inor flaws do not detract from the vibrancy and power of a spectacular debut, and one which makes a significant contribution to the literature of Africa." - Christina Patterson, The Observer

  • "Isegawa's unwieldy first novel sags under the weight of the multiple, competing strands of narrative, both familial and national, and it's the explosive social landscape that's ultimately more interesting." - Anderson Tepper, Salon

  • "Though the Abyssinian Chronicles doesn't reach all of its goals, both the vision and stylistic flair that distinguish most of it deserve our acclaim. Very few novels have its exuberance; still fewer hit their marks with Isegawa's assurance and poise." - Peter Wolfe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

  • "Abyssinian Chronicles is an ambitiously conceived novel and it offers an interesting, personal perspective on recent Ugandan history. But the writing is awful. Isegawa’s diction lurches clumsily between the grittiest street slang and pompous verbosity. The mixed-up quality of the prose may well be meant to reflect the mixed-up quality of Mugezi’s experience. Isegawa, however, lacks the technical resources to pull it off convincingly." - Steve King, The Spectator

  • "Kein Zweifel: Da will einer hoch hinaus. Womöglich bis zur "Great African Novel". Aber: Folgt da die Dritte Welt nur den Phantasien, die sich die Erste von ihr macht? Oder formuliert sich hier tatsächlich neues Selbstbewusstsein? Isegawas Roman wohnt ein ungebrochener Wille inne. "Ich will hier raus, ich will es schaffen, ich will", sagt die Abessinische Chronik fast auf jeder Seite. Das Buch dient nicht nur als Mittel zur Befreiung -- es erzählt selbst auch noch die Geschichte einer solchen." - Peter Michalzik, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "(A) remarkable piece of writing, expertly blending personal testimony and historical information. It is a serious and often shocking literary work, and a necessary corrective to Giles Foden's comic novel about Amin, The Last King of Scotland." - Andrew Biswell, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Precious few first novels are as phantasmagoric or as haunting as this one." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "Yet even in weaker moments, the sense of a unique articulateness persists. Isegawa's subtle shifts between first-person and omniscient narrators serve his ambitions well, and the author marshals an extensive cast of characters beautifully, following many to their varied ends. (...) His is one of the most sensitive and encompassing portraits of a modern African society to date." - Annmarie S. Drury, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Abyssinian Chronicles is as much a history of Uganda's postcolonial past, a chronicle of the country's bloody cycle of excesses by one wretched leader after another--certainly, in fact, one of the worst cycles of the abuse of power the continent has known. This emphasis on the state's collapse often gives the impression that the book is not so much a novel as an eyewitness account of things falling apart" - Charles R. Larson, World & I

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Abyssinian Chronicles is a novel set largely in Uganda (and not at all in Abyssinia -- i.e. Ethiopia). The title is not a geographical or historical mistake, or a publicist's crude and misleading attempt to catch readers' eyes in bookstores with a title that is more provocative than, say, "Ugandan Chronicles" might be. The explanation for the title comes very late in the novel; the narrator says it is the only political statement his father ever made:

He said that Uganda was a land of false bottoms where under every abyss there was another one waiting to snare people, and that the historians had made a mistake: Abyssinia was not the ancient land of Ethiopia, but modern Uganda.
       Uganda, like so many African countries, has long been a troubled place. It was among the countries that adjusted reasonably well in the tide of independence that washed over the continent around the 1960s -- until the contemptible dictator Idi Amin came to power. Almost all the nation's potential and hope was crushed during his brutal, clownish misreign (1971-1979). Obote II (as the second Obote regime is called in the novel) saw minimal improvements, culminating in another overthrow in 1985. Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986, made many changes for the better but runs a one-party state and has in recent years involved Uganda in the senseless and wasteful conflict in what used to be Zaire. In addition, Uganda was among the first and hardest hit countries to face AIDS in the 1980s.
       Events in the abyss that became Uganda over the past three decades provide fertile ground for fiction, and a number of authors have based books there -- most notably, perhaps, Giles Foden with his Idi Amin book, The Last King of Scotland (see our review). Isegawa's novel covers the whole fascinating span, from the 1960s through the early 1990s.
       Moses Isegawa's large novel is clearly based on the author's own life. His first-person narrator, Mugezi, is about the same age, suffers the same schooling, becomes a teacher, and finally leaves his native Uganda for the Netherlands, making a new life there.
       The resilient and resourceful Mugezi does not live the happiest of lives. Though his family is fairly well-off (to the extent that they can afford all the necessities and most of the comforts of Ugandan life at that time), Mugezi's life is not an easy one. He suffers at home and at school, not because he is naturally a victim but because he lives in a thoroughly unjust and arbitrary world. His domestic and school life mirror, on a different scale, the life of most Ugandans under the perverse regime of Idi Amin.
       Mugezi's father is Serenity. In a fit of independence Serenity made an extremely unwise choice in proposing to Nakkazi -- also known as Virgin, St. Peter, or, finally, Padlock. A former nun -- known at the convent as St. Peter -- she got carried away in punishing some children and hurt seven so badly that she was disrobed and thrust back into a world she was both ill-suited for and did not like. Marriage is a perverse martyrdom for her, and she makes as many others suffer for it as she can. Mugezi is the eldest of their twelve children -- though Serenity also fathered a girl before marrying, a half-sister of Mugezi's who reappears very unexpectedly late in the book.
       When Serenity gets a job in Kampala he and Padlock move there, leaving Mugezi with his grandmother and other relatives in the countryside. It is perhaps the happiest time in his life, as he goes as his grandmother's assistant when she performs her job as midwife. On January 25, 1971 his world comes crashing down: the night Idi Amin takes power is also the night his grandmother dies.
       Mugezi has to move to the city, to live with his parents. He describes his life there as one close to slavery, the imperious Padlock making him do all the dirty work, allowing him almost no respite. The ever-growing number of siblings is an anonymous brood which he has to take care of and monitor. He does not give any of their names, referring to them simply as the "shitters".
       Occasionally, Mugezi can get back at his mother's tyranny with subtle sabotage. Eventually he gets himself shipped off to a seminary, a place of even more unspeakable and arbitrary terror, both from other students and the teachers. Books are a small escape for him, but fortunately Isegawa avoids making too much of this tired cliché
       Uganda was and is a complex place of many different ethnic and religious groupings. The north-south split is the most obvious, but there are other significant ones. Isegawa introduces Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim characters, and does a fine job of describing their missionary approaches and zeal. (The Muslims tend to come off better than the Christians, but many Muslim converts are shown only adopting the religion because they are promised an automobile.)
       The expatriation of the Indians is also well-described, as is the whole failure of Idi Amin's tyrannical rule. Occasionally Mugezi romanticizes the figure of Amin, envious of the raw power he has. However, he never completely succumbs to the man's charms.
       Acts of brutality occur on all levels. Among the worst is the rape of one of his aunts -- by troops that helped depose Amin, and who otherwise did little harm to the local population. Bad luck finds her tricked by the clever ruse of seven brothers who then gang-rape her. There are also other relatives who are tortured and killed.
       By the time Mugezi leaves the seminary the country has been almost completely corrupted. He can not get a place at the university to study law -- his grandfather's dream for him. Getting a place now depends on contacts, bribes, connections, and luck, and even resourceful Mugezi can not navigate this particular maze.
       Mugezi eventually becomes a teacher, painting a dismal picture of that profession in Uganda. The pay is so low that no teacher can live on that salary alone. Mugezi is able to supplement his income with a booming home brewery business.
       The guerrilla war continues, and finally there is an attack on Mugezi's home village, destroying it -- or, as Mugezi puts it: "Thus the village of my birth was consigned to the caustic dust of oblivion." AIDS also claims victims, affecting Mugezi's family as well as many others..
       Eventually, Mugezi leaves for the Netherlands, intending only to visit (as poster boy for a charitable organization that has some PR problems), but staying. These last sections of the novel are a bit more rushed, as the years fly by relatively quickly. From government corruption to AIDS hysteria to seedy aid organizations to Dutch racism Isegawa covers a lot of ground. Most of it he does well, though at times it feels as if this were material for another book (or two). On the whole, however, Isegawa ties this large novel and its many strands together neatly.
       Mugezi's most redeeming feature is that he continues always to try to succeed, regardless of the obstacles in his way. He never despairs, even in despairing circumstances. He is not always sympathetic -- and he does do some mean and devious things -- and innocent people are occasionally harmed. However, he is not a character asking for pity, and he is fundamentally decent -- as decent, perhaps, as one can be in these complex circumstances and still survive.
       Isegawa's language is rich -- often too much so for its own good. He gets carried away, writing for example:
The cubbyhole shops were grouped like a bunch of cargo containers vomited by a shipwreck, pounded by the iron sun, harassed by poison rain and eroded from inside by the semi-volitional mode of disintegration favored by stranded pirates.
       Nevertheless, Abyssinian Chronicles is a fine read. Only some of the passages of the domestic warfare with the mother from hell seem excessive. The rest is a successful evocation of turbulent times, with surprisingly little outright horror or violence.
       Abyssinian Chronicles is a very ambitious novel, and Isegawa leads the reader astray on occasion, trying things out that don't quite come off or getting too enamored with fancy expression. Nevertheless, the novel shows great promise -- there is a lot of talent at work here, and most of it has been put to good use. Recommended.

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Abyssinian Chronicles: Reviews: Other books by Moses Isegawa under review: Other books set in Uganda under review: Other books under review that may be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Ugandan author Moses Isegawa was born in 1963. He moved to the Netherlands in 1990 and is now a Dutch citizen.

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