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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Moses Isegawa

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To purchase Snakepit

Title: Snakepit
Author: Moses Isegawa
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 259 pages
Availability: Snakepit - US
Snakepit - UK
Snakepit - Canada
La fosse aux serpents - France
Die Schlangengrube - Deutschland
  • Though apparently written in English, Snakepit was first published in Dutch (as Slangenkuil) in 1999, and only released in the US and UK in 2004

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Our Assessment:

B- : rough, messy, unfocussed -- but conveys some of what it meant to live in Uganda in the 1970s

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 24/1/2003 Marion Löhndorf
The Nation . 5/4/2004 Matt Steinglass
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 18/7/2002 Irene Binal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/5/2004 Brock Baker
San Francisco Chronicle . 28/3/2004 Sarah Coleman
Die Welt . 20/7/2002 Ulrich Baron

  From the Reviews:
  • "Moses Isegawa spricht eine deutliche Sprache und verwendet einfache, kraftvolle Bilder, vor allem, wenn es um Schmerz und Trauer geht, die in diesem Buch am stärksten wirksamen Kräfte." - Marion Löhndorf, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Es ist ein düsterer und trauriger Roman, den Moses Isegawa den Lesern vorsetzt; ein Roman, der am Leben seines Protagonisten die ganze, verzweifelte Geschichte eines Landes widerspiegelt (...) Auf die Farbenpracht und Opulenz seines Erstlings hat Isegawa diesmal ebenso verzichtet wie auf den Humor. Die Handlung ist geradliniger, die Zeichnung der Figuren fast minimalistisch, der Autor selbst bleibt im Hintergrund, verbirgt sich hinter den monströsen Ereignissen in der jüngeren Vergangenheit seines Landes. Vorgeblich unbeteiligt, beinahe gleichgültig spinnt Isegawa seine Erzählstränge" - Irene Binal, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Isegawa's hurtling style and tone of outraged helplessness convey the vertiginous atmosphere of the Ugandan free-for-all. (...) Snakepit remains a considerable achievement, an insider's viscerally imagined dramatization of the monumental and horrific follies of that particular time and place." - Brock Baker, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Set in late 1970s Uganda at the chaotic end of Amin's rule, Snakepit is a devastating portrait of a country at the brink of implosion. (...) Full of visceral, graphic language and acts of premeditated violence, Snakepit offers a dark, queasy-making vision of a country hijacked by greed and megalomania." - Sarah Coleman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Die Schlangengrube führt ihren Helden durch ein Minenfeld aus Intrigen und Korruption. Doch Isegawa tendiert dazu, die Entwicklung seiner Gestalten eher rückblickend zu referieren als sie aus der Handlung heraus zu entwickeln. (...) Doch auf psychologische Entwicklungen und Ambivalenzen sind Isegawas Gestalten und ist die Handlung seines Romans nicht zugeschnitten. Vielleicht, weil das Böse tatsächlich so banal ist. Nur die Szenen mit Babit geben subtileren Empfindungen Raum, die sie nach ihrer Ermordung als gespenstische Trinität auferstehen lassen." - Ulrich Baron, Die Welt

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:

       Snakepit -- both the title and the book -- describe Uganda under Idi Amin's (mis)rule in the 1970s. It was a country of almost complete corruption, great decadence, petty personal vendettas, and senseless and often arbitrary violence from which no one was safe, and Snakepit is a wallow right in the middle of the worst of it.
       Isegawa's previous sprawling epic of those times, Abyssinian Chronicles, was so successful in part because of its tight focus on the life of a single character, Mugezi. In Snakepit the author seems unable to decide who to focus on, and so several overlapping storylines and perspectives compete here; it makes for a narrative at odds with itself, rendering it far less effective.
       The central character is Bat Katanga. Upon completing his studies at Cambridge (post-graduate work in mathematics) he could have remained abroad, but instead eagerly returned to Amin's Uganda. He saw it as a land of opportunity, especially as the recent mass expulsion of foreigners had left many places open in the civil service. (Here, as elsewhere, there is little reflection on how these changes came about and what the possible implications were. Bat -- and most of the other characters -- simply take whatever situations they are faced with as givens, and deal with them accordingly, almost never considering what role their actions might play in the bigger picture (or might have played in bringing about these situations).)
       Bat's job interview opens the book: it is in the helicopter -- a missile-laden military helicopter -- of General Samson Bazooka Ondogar, who is also the Minister of Power and Communication. General Bazooka -- the same age as Bat -- is essentially the anti-Bat, a poorly educated man who rose to power in the army and there attracted the attention of Amin, and a man concerned only with his own power and happiness, not the welfare of the country. But hiring Bat, and essentially putting him in charge of the Ministry, turns out to be a good move: he's a rare bureaucrat willing and able to get things done, something vitally needed in a country rapidly being run into the ground by all the others in power.
       Bazooka doesn't really trust anyone, and is jealous of Bat's easier path in life. He thinks about undermining him from the beginning, and to at least keep an eye on him he charges a former mistress, Victoria, to spy on Bat. Victoria becomes Bat's mistress, and even falls in love with him. Unfortunately, she finds little to report on Bat, as he took to heart advice a friend gave him when he started his job:

Keep out of politics. Keep democracy and human rights outcries on a tight leash. Keep your passport with you at all times.
       Bat only wants to do his work, and he does it well -- which Bazooka is only half-pleased about. Talent makes him jealous, as he has none; Bazooka can only rely on his connexions (especially to Amin) and on violence.
       Idi Amin also figures in the book, though mainly as the nightmarish clown he was. Other influential figures of the time -- the astrologist Dr. Ali, upon whom many African heads of state relied, and Robert Ashes, an Englishman who finds favour with Amin -- play fairly prominent roles. Ashes and Colonel Bazooka constantly try to destroy each other, a dance that claims many other victims in an unconscionable power struggle where each also has to try to avoid antagonising the unpredictable Amin while achieving their ends.
       Bat can't stay entirely above the fray, and winds up jailed, getting a taste of the incredible brutality of the regime. Eventually released (thanks to foreign intercession managed by a Cambridge friend who, conveniently, has become an MP) he briefly leaves the country but, despite all he has seen and knows (and the obvious dangers) returns; later, he also vacations in the US and returns yet again -- among the more unconvincingly presented decisions he makes.
       The book is full of strikes and counter-strikes by various characters, first just the powerful, then also the insurgents (one of whom is Bat's brother). It's an odd litany of brutality, a back and forth with much violence and death. Shifting from character to character, Isegawa piles on many examples of the self-destructive infighting among those jockeying for power, and the many innocent lives lost along the way. There are some effective scenes, including what Bat is made to do while incarcerated, but much is little more than cursory -- action-movie-style violence and little more.
       How the nation falls apart is also only partially seen: almost all the characters live in isolation, staying apart from everyday Ugandan life. Denial also plays a role: the nightly gunfire is something one gets used to and ignores. So are the disappearances.
       Power is ill-defined in the book: it's unclear why characters are sometimes able to do outrageous things, sending out underlings to do their massacring, and at other times are powerless. Violence is shown to be arbitrary, but Isegawa reduces it too far, while still trying to maintain a sense of, for example, there being a real power struggle between Bazooka and Ashes. Terrorist bombings (in which Bat's brother is involved) ironically undermine the regime -- violence again used almost capriciously, against whatever target is at hand, the regime weakened by its own methods.
       Snakepit zips along, almost the entire period of Amin's rule covered in the fairly short book. The quick succession of episodes (and the constant shift in who is most threatened), along with Isegawa's relentless style, means the narrative never flags. But it also rarely builds up to any powerful scenes. Isegawa's simplifications and tendency to exaggerate -- especially about trivial matters (Bat stays on the hundredth floor of a Chicago hotel, or travels at 200 kmh across Ugandan roads (!)) -- also weakens the narrative. When the person accused of murdering Bat's wife is on trial Isegawa uses exaggeration to some decent effect, but can't quite pull of the scenes (and further confuses matters by maintaining that Bat is the one who hires the prosecuting lawyers -- something unheard of in criminal cases in any judicial system).
       The book has its share of successes. The scenes of reflection, especially when characters encounter aspects of Ugandan life they have ignored, are often quite good. Several of the women characters are also particularly well drawn (though the complex Victoria is -- as presented -- almost entirely unbelievable, as he simply tries to do too much with her). And the overall sense of desperation of those clinging to power on the thug Amin's coat-tails also comes across.
       Snakepit is too crowded: these diverse characters are a good mix to convey what happened in that place, at that time, but Isegawa moves awkwardly between their stories instead of just allowing one (Bat's) or two (Bat's and Bazzoka's) to dominate. Too many stories and characters jostle for attention; too many get it, briefly, and are then pushed aside and forgotten again.
       Disappointingly, also, Amin isn't much of a villain (or anything else) here, a relatively peripheral figure who, while being feared, isn't shown to be the prime force in terrorizing his countrymen and destroying the nation. Even the final collapse of his regime is far too simply related. At the end Isegawa suggests there has been a sweeping clean of all the worst elements, with Bat seeming "to be the lone victor left after a vicious fight". Bat accepts an offer to become a bureaucrat in the successor government: "He was ready to relaunch his life" -- but he doesn't seem to have learnt much: the Obote government, after all, turned out hardly to be much improvement over what Amin had wrought. But then Bat's major failing -- one Isegawa does not appear to want to condemn him for -- seems to be an inability to consider the implications of being a cog in an unjust machinery. This is a book about complicity, but it's the one thing Isegawa carefully avoids passing judgement on.
       With it's over-the-top violence, fast-paced back-and-forth struggles among power-hungry underlings, fancy machinery (helicopters ! fancy cars !), a touch of the foreign (a Cambridge degree, evil Ashes, an English MP, brief (and awkwardly drawn) visits to the US and UK), and it's being crammed over-full with occurrences (and not so much attention to style), Snakepit is reminiscent of a sort of African novel that seems to have gone out of style some twenty years ago. There's enough to it for it to be a decent adventure novel of terible times, but the fact that it is so closely based on historical fact makes it more difficult to simply accept it as is. Isegawa's approach fails to convince of the reality of that situation: despite graphically relating many of the worst outrages it draws too simple a picture of what happened in Uganda and specifically conveys too little of how all this (Amin's rise, rule, and fall -- and all that went with them) came about. It even threatens to trivialize it, a disappointment after Isegawa's urgent and largely convincing Abyssinian Chronicles.

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Snakepit: Reviews: Moses Isegawa:
  • Article from De Groene Amsterdammer (Dutch)
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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© 2004-2021 the complete review

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