First, I read a novel called Snakepit, by Moses Isegawa (2004), set during Idi Amin’s shambolic reign of terror in Uganda between 1971 and 1979. What a chaotic, amoral book it is.
In most chronologically-structured novels divided into three parts, as this one is, you might expect the first act to introduce key characters and their conflicts, and to set the overall plot in motion. In Snakepit, no such easy sequence is honoured: the very first scene presents to us the initial meeting of Bat Katanga and General Samson Bazooka Ondogar aboard a helicopter, the latter recruiting the former to the position of “Bureaucrat Two in the Ministry of Power and Communications” (11). I would usually be thrilled by a rare sighting of my own full first name in a book other than the Bible, but I fear that in this instance, had Snakepit been written before my birth and had my mum read it, she would never have burdened me with such a namesake. Following their hectic airborne transaction, ’General Bazooka’, as he is known, immediately becomes jealous of the better-educated man he has hired because he is doing too good a job and taking the shine off the General’s own achievements. Both of these men are presented in a strangely ahistorical way—we learn a little of their previous lives as the story progresses, but the large majority of their decisions in the book are motivated only by their desire to respond to the other man. There is little depth to either of them, or to the rest of the characters we meet. But I don’t think it is a critical cop-out to say that this sense of detachment from the past is a deliberate rhetorical approach of Isegawa’s, reflecting how Uganda and other African nations experienced a cycle of ends and new beginnings to their ‘official’ histories in the years after European retreat, as dictators were deposed and new ones rose to power.
As the name of the “Ministry of Power and Communication” suggests, Amin’s was a tyrannical regime that determined to project its own omniscience, dependent upon state-run media to present Marshal Amin as the rightful ruler of the nation only recently liberated from the British and short-lived Ugandan monarchies. Authoritarians the world over have long relied upon the harnessing of television, radio, telephone lines, etc., to broadcast the new creed and to scapegoat ethnic groups as enemies of the state, be it Hitler or the Hutus in Rwanda. The principal object of Amin’s ire, however, was categorically different from the Jewry or the Tutsi because the group was not only absent but also genuinely culpable, the ideal soft target for a dictator seeking legitimacy among the populace without initiating a war. The focus of Amin’s propaganda was the once-mighty British Empire.
For the first fifteen years or so of his military career, Amin had gained experience in suppressing civilians as a member of the occupying British Army, before joining the Ugandan People’s Defence Force once the nation gained its independence in 1962. By the time he came to power following a successful coup almost a decade later, Amin recognised, as Robert Mugabe later would, that the still-raw memory of colonial oppression might be successfully exploited. He advertised himself as the benevolent leader who would step in and fill the power vacuum that nobody had yet filled successfully. It is often the case that, when studying the self-proclaimed emperors of post-colonial Africa, from Bokassa to Mobutu and Mugabe, there is a kernel of something righteous. If you can see past the rampant corruption, wholesale murder of suspected dissidents, hypocrisy, drug addiction and megalomania (which feature on almost every page of Snakepit), the legitimacy of the anti-colonial, self-governing message is hard to deny. That essential promise, though it is heavily masked, is what makes Idi Amin’s betrayal of his country especially bitter to take.
The author fictionalises the quasi-military civil agencies, undermined at all points by foreign agents and domestic spies, that Amin set up to govern while he stood clear as figurehead. Even before inflation spirals and the government issues “a new million-shilling bank-note, with a picture of [Amin] defecating on Europe,” the primary currency that the men of these agencies trade in is violence. They offer it in payment to others by means of threats and dreadful wagers, and then make good by all manner of indifferent torture and summary execution. Isegawa is rarely explicit with gory detail, but it’s still a book I struggled to read over dinner.
Snakepit presents Amin’s Uganda in a state of complete disarray, and if some would see his emphasis on historical and present violence as a hindrance to all enjoyment, I can understand that, and to them I would recommend almost any other book before this one. Still, to my mind Isegawa does not belabour the history, nor does he insist upon pity for the people caught up in its wake, yet I was struck by his understanding and the pathos he could write. I liked this strange novel.
I don’t follow any detective series, but I’ll read anything set in Detroit. Based on that alone, I borrowed a book called You Know Who Killed Me (2013), by Loren D. Estleman, from the library this week.
In choosing it I hardly read further than the suggestion on the back cover that the protagonist is “Detroit P. I. Amos Walker”, but as it turns out this is the twenty-fourth book in a series. Still, once I started to read about this private eye—a divorcé in late middle-age, trying and usually failing to overcome addictions to painkillers and scotch, lacking respect for the system, the law and the technology now typically employed to enforce it, but ready with a quip for every occasion—I hardly felt as if the previous twenty-three instalments had left me behind, when he fits the profile of every renegade in history.
There was one pleasant surprise in there, though. In the first chapter, our gnarled hero Amos Walker is deputised to help a struggling city police department close a tricky murder case. The pen-pushing police higher-ups have decided to scrutinise this particular case, since the wife of the deceased paid to embarrass them on billboards all around Detroit. Each sign carries a blown-up photograph of the woman’s late husband below a rousing legend directed at detectives who are either inept or dragging their heels: “YOU KNOW WHO KILLED ME!” My surprise was in finding that Estleman was quicker to the punch with this interesting conceit than Martin Mc Donagh in his 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but while he gets there first, he does nothing with it. The whole affair is quickly brushed aside to allow us to move on to emerging discoveries in the case concerning the assailant’s possible Ukrainian mob ties. I can’t remember much about the bland Ukrainians, and honestly I was happier in my own little discovery of this artistic connection. I love to feel that web of reference growing between disparate books and films and art in my head. Even if the artist doesn’t see the link, I do, and it makes me feel as if I am participating, and that my reading is a unique interaction separate from everybody else’s.
You Know Who Killed Me isn’t very good, in my opinion, but laughter is as worthwhile a reaction as tears, and Estleman really got me a few times. I’ll end this section on my favourite of these moments, a calamitous gastrointestinal echo of self-inflicted malnutrition brought about by half of a midnight martini that has unsettled his stomach: “Even that little bit of liquor sat on the party-store hot dog like a rhinoceros with a sprained ankle” (141).
After last week’s singular concentration on Middlemarch, I completed my return to scatter-shot diversity with William Golding’s difficult novel set in medieval England, The Spire (1964). I say that reading of a religious leader’s monomaniacal pursuit of God through a building project is ‘difficult’ not because the plot is convoluted, indeed it’s a very simple tragedy—as the spire goes up, the pressure mounts, until neither the people nor the masonry can take it any more. What Golding does to complicate this story is saturate every sentence, sometimes every word within each sentence, with a metaphorical meaning that I only seemed to grasp in maybe one instance out of four. It can feel impenetrable. I want to be frank about this—Golding’s strange, unspecific register—and about the limits of my authority in interpretation, before I say any more, by quoting a passage from the beginning of the book, one of the kind that seems as if it would mean so much more to me if only I could read it right. The protagonist, Dean Jocelin, whose vision and local primacy demand the construction of the fated spire, steps out on a wet morning to consider his cathedral:
“When the rain drizzled, then time was a drizzle, slow and to be endured. When the rain lashed down, then the thousand gargoyles—and now men thought how their models mouldered in the graveyards of the Close or the parish churches—gave vent. They uttered water as if this were yet another penalty of damnation; and what they uttered joined with what streamed down glass and lead and moulding, down members and pinnacles, down faces and squared headlands to run bubbling and clucking at the gutter of the wall.” (51)
The sight of gargoyles “utter[ing] water” is so resonant, but of what? I don’t think it’s just my constricted understanding of medieval religion that holds me back.
The narrator’s voice, in tune with Dean Jocelin’s muddled mind, seizes up as the building work begins, and the lucidity of the perspective continues to contract until Jocelin perceives nothing but vague impressions of light and shade. As the man himself fades, the spire that he sees as prayer set in stone seems to take on the humanity he sheds. Golding attributes to the new construction a singing voice, four faces, even skin to clothe it. We see a fatal race develop: the ever-more-human spire must be erected up to its full, impossible height of four hundred feet and so pierce the heavens before Jocelin, his grip on life weakening, dies unconsummated. It’s almost sexual, but it’s also fragile, and the toppling balance of the mind tethered to the swaying tower reminds me of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder (1892). This main theme is bolstered by a contextual consideration that Neil Gower’s beautiful art on my 2005 Faber and Faber paperback edition of the book helps to bring out. The illustration on the front cover is quite literal, depicting a cathedral with a monumental spire. The genius is that all of it—the nave, the cloister, the spire—is drawn on the same plane, totally flat, because of course artists of the medieval era did not have the benefit of perspective. Golding employs a very twentieth-century kind of narrative invention to take us into the mind of man who, similar to the artists of his time, cannot see the world of his responsibility in three dimensions: his desire will be fulfilled regardless of expense, and everything else, we find, will be left to rot and ruin.
Alongside that main narrative, there is so much that I couldn’t work out, especially regarding Jocelin’s relationship with the rest of the unhappy cathedral folk, who are right to call the spire “Jocelin’s folly.” The limping man Pangall inhabits a fetid cottage on the cathedral grounds, and I wish I could hint to you what happens to this object of pity half way through the book, tell you under what circumstances he vanishes, but I can’t. I only know that his wife, herself the object of unwanted affection on all sides, is left behind to endure the forbidden lusts of more than one man. Jocelin insists that she has “bewitched” him with a glimpse of immodest red hair beneath her wimple (in an age when bewitching was an offence to be punished by burning). His judgement is based on her haunting presence in his mind, and for all I know her hair might haunt me too in the coming days. Nothing about my reaction to this book is certain.