Friday, May 9, 2008

Abyssinian Chronicles: Africa Reading Challenge Review (& Book Club)

Our most recent book club pick and boy, could we have picked a worse book? I never, ever would have read past the first fifty pages if I did not feel somewhat beholden to the other women who would gather at my house to discuss it. As it was I managed to read the first 100 pages straight through and then I skimmed another 100 and then I just simply had to give up. I have never been so bored with a book in my life, nor so exasperated, so utterly confused at its existence, so disappointed in a book in long time.

So what is so wrong with this book aside from being utterly boring? First, it’s about 300 pages too long. Isegawa has not just the tendency to be overwordy, but he also feels the need to repeat certain rather absurd words over and over. Like “hydra.” Every problem becomes metaphorically a hydra. Used once it could possibly be construed as somewhat clever, maybe, but after fifty times? It’s just irritating. His parents are the “despots” and his siblings are the “shitters.” Not particularly inspired, even less so after 500 pages, plus it just distances the reader from these relationships. The “shitters” develop no further personalities, no other distinguishing features than to be grouped together in this way.

There are politics buried in this book, but they are so few and far between, so in fact buried in the mundane details that fill much of the book, that they might as well not be there at all. But these details, I imagine, are what drew interest to the book in the first place. A grandfather involved in village politics. An aunt working with the NRM to build an underground opposition to Amin. The terror of living during the Amin regime. Okay, these are interesting. And yet they seem to fill less than 50 pages of this overly immense book.

My other huge problem is with perspective. Why is this a first person narration? How does our narrator know all the details of his father’s life before the narrator was born? Or anyone’s? He’s somehow completely omniscient and there’s no explanation for it. Very irritating.

There’s very little to like in this book and I keep coming back to the question of why something like this would get published and I keep thinking about this article I read recently by David Kaiza in the East African newspaper (which I’ve linked to before and may not be available online all that much longer). In explaining the success of Abyssinian Chronicles, he said, “African literature typecast, exiled to the realms of the phantasmagorical.” Okay, I’m not actually sure where the phantasmagorical comes in Abyssinian Chronicles—maybe I just didn’t make it that far or maybe this is somehow supposed to explain the narrator’s omniscient nature—but it’s the idea that the only African literature to get published has to fit a model. It has to be about African dictators or what the Western world understands to be the African experience. It’s the best explanation I can come up with why Isegawa’s book got picked up in the first place.


Scarlett Lion said...

Hannah - I have to say that the main reason I didn't choose to attend your book club was the choice of book. I wasn't going to go and criticize a book or a club's choice before anything transpired, but I'm glad that you've done it for me here. MI is awful, and I hate it when people claim him as Uganda's literary hero. I have other beef with Kaiza, but he is somewhat right about the West's expectations of what an African novel should look like. Kaiza may get a lot of things wrong (and in my opinion does so regularly) but there is something to the idea that the West thinks African novels should be long and convoluted and boring. After all, Africa is complicated, therefore shouldn't its literature be as well? Alas. So many other good books so much more worthwhile. What is your club reading next week? GG

tumwijuke said...

I am so glad you didn't like this book. It means I was not totally mad when in a fit of frustration with Abyssinian Chronicles I joined a touring Mormon acapella boy band.

I got an autographed copy of the book way back when from Isegawa himself and it is not something I treasure.

Someone told me it felt like she was reading three different books told by three different people. Either that or Isegawa has multiple personality disorder.

I guess it's a warning that you shouldn't touch his 'Snake Pit' with a ten foot pole. I did and I'm seeing a counselor for my post traumatic stress disorder because of it. ;-)

*I read your questions on the thing just this morning. Will respond asap.

hannah said...

First, haven't read all that much of David Kaiza's articles, so can't really comment too much more on that.

We're reading The Road for our next book club.

I was talking to someone this morning who really enjoyed Abyssinian Chronicles - she said "you just have to get past his language and there's a really good story there." But I don't think you should have to get past the language to enjoy a book. She also suggested the book was originally written in Dutch and the real problem was with the translation. Anyone know if this is true?

And yes, will definitely keep my distance from Snake Pit! Thanks for the warning.

Rob said...

Blast. This book has been on my shelf for about two years. I thought the Africa Reading Challenge would finally force me to read it. Now I wish I'd just left it on the shelf