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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Annie Gagiano calls Snakepit by Moses Isegawa ''a distinctly serious and consistent, worldly analysis of banalised horror''


Annie Gagiano - 2007-06-26

Moses Isegawa
Snakepit
Picador Africa, 2005

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In this, his second novel after Abyssinian Chronicles (2000), Moses Isegawa evokes life in Uganda during the Idi Amin period by employing the fairly straightforward style of the hardboiled thriller. His angle of observation is the privileged and precarious existence of Bat Katanga, a Cambridge-educated Ugandan of southern origin (as his surname emphasises) who returns to Uganda to seek employment. Bat is not an evil man – neither entirely ruthless nor inherently corrupt. But he returns to Uganda entirely open-eyed about the kind of society he is returning to and determined to fulfil his ambitious yearnings for the good life of easy-going women, fast cars, luxurious living quarters and the intoxicating whiff of power accessible to those serving its ends with their expertise. Isegawa does not show us much of Amin himself, but he provides us with compelling glimpses of the quality of life lived in Uganda at this time:

Soldiers were joyriding down the streets in open Stinger jeeps, guns and bums sticking out. State Research Bureau boys were prominently displaying bell-bottom trousers wide as tents, platform shoes high as ladders, silver sunglasses shiny as chrome and walkie-talkies bulky as phone booths. Looking at them, spectral as scorched trees and menacing as bee-stung bulldogs, one might get the impression that an arrest was taking place every minute, the country locked in a spastic daze. They made this look like another city, compared with the earlier Kampala – accursed, dirty, haunted.

In the villages where he had just been, these boys were absent. Cattle farmers went about their business seemingly oblivious to the crisis in the city. Stepping from the horizon-kissed grasslands into the urban filth, violence, uncertainty, was to step into a broken, alien world. But they were two thinly joined worlds, flying the same flag, using the same inflated currency, ruled by the same scum. To most villagers Marshal Amin was a spectre floating on rumour, occasionally projecting from a feeble radio speaker, never seen, never touched. (131)

Isegawa’s style does not aspire to subtlety or depth of character analysis; it's as though he wants to suggest that the brutalities of the regime dominating all aspects of life in Uganda simply will not tolerate shades of feeling or moral complexity.

Bat’s employer and immediate superior is the Minister of Power and Communications, who is utterly straightforward in declaring to Bat (whom he has only just met) that to him Kampala is the most beautiful city in the world, because he owns a fifth of it – as he does (he says) of “everything in this country”, even its fishes and crocodiles (7)! The Minister is a military man who pushed his way upwards by means of crimes and intimidation; his name is General Bazooka (no less).

What Bat is unaware of is that his boss, while pleased with his intellect and efficiency (by means of which Bat cleans up a torrid mess in the ministry), carries an indelible grudge against the formerly privileged and superior southerners, who had in his youth, before the coup, “always seemed to have everything he dreamed of” (12).

Bat basks in the privileges of his job: a beautiful government villa on the lake at Entebbe, servants aplenty and “a green racing Jaguar XJ10” (16). His best friend, now a banker, advises him to “keep out of politics”, to “keep democracy and human rights outcries on a tight leash” and to “keep [his] passport with [him] at all times”. He attends many weddings, which the new ruling class of “soldiers, pirates, gangsters and hangers-on” crowd to – weddings in Uganda being (according to Bat) “rivalled only by seáncing” in popularity at this time (19).

General Bazooka sets a seductress to spy on Bat. She is also a southerner, Victoria Kayiwa. The General has a history with her and a hold over her. After an affair, begun when (despite her mother’s outrage) she took up with him because her family had lost its wealth, came to an end, he had had her "broken in" by military and espionage trainers and made useful to him as an operative in the notorious State Research Bureau. She was "blooded" by her first job for the Bureau: shooting a woman doctor in a room near her children. “For Victoria there was a burst of fear, then euphoria” (30), the narrator blandly informs us. Bat’s friends the Kalandas discuss Victoria; Mrs Kalanda has her suspicions about this “woman without [a] history” (39), while Mr Kalanda mainly envies Bat his sexual success (since the sultry Victoria has now moved into Bat’s villa).

Conspicuous success is Bat’s standard of achievement; he is utterly disdainful of his sister’s decision to marry a failed town planner and to move to the rural area (she is a nurse and knows that skills like hers are needed there). Nevertheless he does not voice his objections to her plans. Indeed, Sister (as she is named throughout the text) is Bat’s only confidant, as we learn later – even though she never accepts any of the expensive gifts Bat attempts to give her. For her part, Victoria envies Sister her conventional respectability; she “envied them their clean record and the fact that they had no nightmares rooted in hurting other people”, knowing that they strived to live, as far as possible, “oblivious to government goings-on” (40).

Bat remains sublimely unaware that his efficiency as a top bureaucrat in his ministry is intensifying the General’s resentful envy of him rather than earning him his gratitude.

The precarious nature of life in Uganda makes itself felt in other ways, however. Bat’s friend and former mentor, known only as the Professor, loses his brother to an act of anarchic, state-protected terrorism:

State Research Bureau boys found him walking home, accused him of supporting dissidents, took his money and watch, and when he resisted, they killed him. In broad daylight!

the bereaved Professor exclaims in pain and fury, “hardly able to contain his rage” (55).

Partly because of the kind of character the author has created him to be, but partly also because the text itself functions throughout more in a sardonic rather than profoundly morally concerned manner, Bat’s response to the news of his friend’s brother’s murder is quite stilted:

I am sorry about this. I wish there was something I could do. I would really not blame you if you decided to go abroad. The country has become a snakepit. It is a shame we have not yet found a way to get rid of the vipers. (55)

The newspaper of the day, Bat finds, reads like Idi Amin’s diary and the rest of the paper teems with astrologers’ advertisements: “promising miracle cures for anything from poverty to psychosis to psoriasis” (55).

The popular recourse to astrology partly mimics the President’s own practice of relying for his state policy decisions on the hugely expensive services of “Doctor” Ahmed Mohammed Mahrani Ali, who jets in occasionally from other countries where he also operates (pun intended) to advise Idi Amin after examining ("reading") sacrificed bulls’ livers.

Isegawa gives one a sense of the bizarre way in which – in the grotesque travesty of state politics which characterises this period – tyranny can coincide with anarchy. The other “advisor” on whose services Amin begins to lean at this time is a rogue British agent named Robert Ashes, who in some respects displaces General Bazooka, becoming the major thorn in this Minister’s flesh.

Bat, in the meantime, engages in his own replacements. At the Professor’s brother’s funeral he notices an attractive innocence in a young woman named Babit, fresh from the country. She becomes Bat’s next lover. When Victoria, who has in the meantime borne her and Bat’s daughter, objects, he forces her to leave their home – oblivious to how obsessive, and dangerous, her passion for him is.

Bat’s stirring of fatherly feelings (in his baby daughter’s presence) are not very convincingly conveyed. Nor has he any understanding of the fact that to Victoria, who feared she might never have a child, the fact that he impregnated her seals her conviction that Bat is the man fate set aside for her. What rings truer as a rendition of Bat’s thoughts is his awareness of the extent to which his cooperative attitude towards corrupt power has already corrupted him too:

He was now like the very countrymen he had tried to flee, dependent on uncontrollable forces, making stupid mistakes, hurting others out of the weakness of failing to say no to superiors, to temptation, to the possibility of upward mobility, to the susurrations from deep inside the snakepit. (59)

Bat’s somewhat mysterious and apparently unemployed younger brother, Tayari, the narrator begins to hint, may have a different sort of card up his sleeve.

Bat soon falls prey to the machinations of the international weapons financing trade. A Saudi prince makes him (in his capacity as the official delegate of the Ugandan government) the "offer" of a huge bribe that he cannot refuse, ensuring for the Arabian businessman the simultaneous advantages of a clinched deal and a perpetual (blackmail-and-murder-threatening) hold over this Ugandan and his Ministry. As Bat realises all too well, he has now begun “sliding down the slimy walls of the snakepit” (71). “By now Bat knew that the Ministry of Power had been used to divert resources from other ministries for military purposes” (80). Robert Ashes knows this too and starts threatening General Bazooka – who blames Bat for the unease that the Brit’s attitude generates in him. To forestall being exposed as a bribe-taker, or to "punish" him, the General has Bat kidnapped, “disappeared”; the narrator conveys Bat’s thoughts as he contemplates his fate: “The city had long since become a catacomb, swallowing its people while keeping a straight face” (86).

Bat knows he is in limbo, but takes a strange sort of comfort from the recognition that he is not an innocent man:

He wasn’t the first; neither would he be the last. ... He did not wish to flee the country. He only wanted to get out of detention with as little damage as possible. (87)

Babit, the Kalandas, Sister and Bat’s other friends and family are left with the harrowing situation of his sudden disappearance. The General wants Bat killed, but his Advisor warns him to practise restraint. In the search, Sister “felt the burden of leadership slipping onto her shoulders, heavy like lead” (127). They telephone and visit everyone they think might help Bat (if he is still alive), visit morgues and hospitals, hire a diviner’s services and eventually make use of the skills of a so-called “surgeon” – one of those who specialise in taking family members to the forests where the regime dumps the corpses of its victims. “Surgeoning,” we are told, “was booming because of the dramatic rise in disappearances” (138).

When the searchers are taken into Mabira forest, this awful sight meets their eyes: “[The corpses] were lying on their backs, on their sides, on their faces, some in coils like pricked millipedes” (138).

Not finding Bat’s body, Sister turns to a British friend of Bat’s, now an MP in the UK. Because of earlier scandals (involving British victims) in Uganda, this man’s influence is effective, as he works through the shady, sinister Robert Ashes, who eventually becomes Bat’s unlikely, direct rescuer (for unsavoury reasons of his own).

During this period the General experiences the initially slow waning of his power, especially because of the role of Ashes.

Bat, once freed, has to get used to the (undeserved) awe with which naïve relatives now regard him (a man all but returned from the dead), but his and Babit’s relationship ripens and at last they get married. His brother warns him, though, that Victoria is vengefully jealous of Babit and that her neurotic, obsessive love for him (Bat) has only intensified. When the General calls on Victoria to threaten her for not having ensnared Bat earlier (as he had instructed her to do), he only intensifies Victoria’s determination to "rescue" Bat – from Babit!

Babit and Bat have at this stage of their marriage become occasional church-goers; Bat appreciates the fact that the church has begun to speak out against Amin’s tyranny.

Another threat to the regime arises in the form of an ongoing bombing campaign – by an anonymous group of militants of which (as the reader is privileged to learn) Bat’s brother is a leading member.

Bat is now employed in the Finance Ministry, still working very hard. Marshal Amin approves the budget by issuing “a new million-shilling bank-note, with a picture of him defecating on Europe” (207).

Victoria has, in the meantime, hired contract killers to murder Babit. As Bat returns home unsuspectingly late one afternoon, he is met by the gruesome sight of his wife’s beheaded corpse in the bath, with her head on a plate on the bathroom floor – this last detail a gloating touch no doubt choreographed by Victoria. Bat’s brother tracks down Victoria and finds the killers she hired. There is a trial, but Victoria walks free. Tayari (Bat’s brother) again wants to kill her, but Bat forbids it. He still refuses direct involvement in violence, and is somewhat bemused that a donation he made to Tayari to set up an opposition broadcasting station was used to finance the bombing campaign – which has, inter alia, destroyed General Bazooka’s wife (as an accidental target). But Bat, another bereaved widower, finds himself locked in despair in the aftermath of Babit’s death. Still, relatives and friends bring life clamouring around him.

An assassination attempt on Marshal Amin’s life fails, but now opposition to his regime takes on a well-organised military form and General Bazooka, who is despatched to lead the regime’s forces, finds them in disarray: “It had all along been a ride on the back of a mad bull, holding on for as long as possible” (254). When Bazooka returns to Kampala, he finds all his properties demolished and vandalised and discovers that all his stashed loot has been taken. He dies ignominiously, soon after, by his own hand.

At last there is a new Ugandan government, one that includes many of Bat’s friends. As the text leaves him, Bat has been offered his old post again in what used to be Bazooka’s Ministry. Now Bat takes pleasure in the sight of Amin’s statues being pulled down and in viewing Bazooka’s razed dwelling. If not quite a “Free at last!” mood, there is a definite sense of relief – but Bat’s haunting memories of Babit persist. Incorrigibly, though (as we learn in the novel’s final sentence), Bat the womaniser “had also had recurrent visits from Mrs Kalanda” (259) – his best friend’s (not altogether sufficiently appreciated) wife!

Snakepit is not a profound exploration of the nature of evil, and it must be said that the psychological portrayal of its characters often dips into the banal or the unconvincingly melodramatic, mostly remaining fairly shallow. Nevertheless it is a distinctly serious and consistent, worldly analysis of banalised horror – of the terrible predations that often pass for politics on our continent and of what such conditions will do to relatively decent, well-intentioned and patriotically committed people such as Bat and his friends and family. Victoria, who flees into the remote countryside with the daughter in whose welfare Bat has shown rather too little interest, remains a seriously under-explored figure in this text – depicted in rough outlines as part victim and part witch. Much more might have been made of her (and of her and Bat’s daughter, about whose character we learn next to nothing). There is something a little cartoon-like about the whole novel, but perhaps Isegawa felt that to be the style most appropriate to his topic.