There are so many barriers to publishing novels, especially novels from less-often heard voices, I always assume that anything that makes it into the bookshops must be pretty exceptional. Even with increasing representation in publishing, there still seem to be hierarchies for what stories are easily available. This blog is a rather shameful example; I don’t specifically seek out stories from Africa and the result is that I’ve only reviewed eight novels categorised as African Literature. Of these, ‘Cockroaches’ by Scholastique Mukasonga is Rwandan, ‘The First Wife’ by Chiziane Paulina is Mozambique and ‘The Woman Next Door’ by Yewande Omotoso is South African. The others are all Nigerian. For the record, I’m the one who sets the categories and they’re largely based on publicity around the books combined with where they are set (Omotoso’s wonderful book is set in South Africa, while the internet calls her a ‘South-African based writer’ who was born in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria. I never said these things are simple). Though I only review a small percentage of the books I read, I think I can confidently say that ‘Kintu’ is my first Ugandan novel. While this means it is also, by default, the best Ugandan novel I’ve ever read, I really want to do more justice to Makumbi’s rich, complex and satisfying debut.
After a brutal present-day prologue, the story of ‘Kintu’ begins in 1750 with our titular hero leaving his two wives and multiple offspring to pay homage to the new Kabaka (king) of Buganda. We see the pre-colonial personal and political challenges of being a Bugandan governor, a complex set of circumstances that directly, but arguably not inevitably, lead to the opening violence of the book’s first pages. From the outset, this is a novel about fate and about identity. Kintu’s two wives are identical twins – a literary trope I normally hate, but here set beautifully within the context of almost lost history, exploring how traditional beliefs shape members of a shared culture, even if the members themselves are unaware of the ghosts that haunt them.
Makumbi’s novel is clearly meticulously researched, but it wears its academic credentials lightly, trusting her audience to fill in any gaps and giving Western readers an exciting sense of being treated like an insider. There is no glossary or cumbersome explanation of non-English vocabulary used – and also no sense that such words have been added as exotic flourishes. Her characters and the language used to describe them pull off the incredibly difficult task of feeling totally accessible to UK readers while still appearing (to an outsider) authentic to the community depicted. Indeed, as the saga unfolds over succeeding generations, we learn that the idea of belonging in and understanding a culture is as complex for Makumbi’s characters as it is for her non-Ugandan readers. The family curse, enacted with fated inevitability in the prologue, stems from a reflexive but not intentionally harmful act of violence from Kintu towards his adopted Tutsi son. This aggression has the tragedy of Greek myth and it is devastating to Kintu and his descendants. It also raises, but does not answer the wider question of belonging. Introducing the novel’s first victim, we’re told ‘as a rule a child in Kintu’s house was a child of the house. Talk of different ancestry was taboo because it led to self-consciousness and isolation.’
Following the sparse but helpful family tree at the start of the book, the novel traces the impact of Kintu’s actions on his descendants in modern day Uganda. By the 1980s much history has been lost and the remaining members of Kintu’s large family are dispersed and ignorant of the curse they carry. As with any good haunting story though, ignorance and rationality are no protection against determined ghosts. Without over explaining anything, individual choices are not only impacted by hidden mythic imperatives, but also their political, economical and cultural contexts. Sprawling though it is, this personal story is woven into a national story, from the immediate impact of the ongoing AIDS crisis to a powerful general in the army who is one of the least domestic of Kintu’s descendant, but who swoops in at the most personally tragic moments with terrifying efficiency.
Kintu is a breathtakingly good novel, and even if you find the different family strands hard to follow I really recommend sticking with it till the brilliant set-piece finale in the final chapters. This blog post has only touched the surface of the ambition and complexity of Makumbi’s debut. I cannot recommend it highly enough – to you and to myself for a reread because with all my admiration I know I’m very far from seeing every level of this supremely accomplished work.