Any novel that begins with a man on the brink of being eaten by a crocodile stands a good chance of engaging a reader's attention. Moses Isegawa's Abyssinian Chronicles (Knopf; 462 pages) not only opens with such a bang, or crunch, but also manages to sustain the narrative fireworks over a long, complex haul.
The novel is, ostensibly, the coming-of-age story of its narrator, Mugezi, who is born in a tiny Ugandan village in the early 1960s and who grows up to witness firsthand his country's plunge into chaos under the dictatorship of Idi Amin during the '70s. But Mugezi is not one of those fictional characters who report only what he can plausibly know or have experienced. He gives all the intimate particulars that occur during the wedding night of his father Serenity and his mother Padlock; notes the later occasion of his own conception and, near the end, provides a detailed account of his parents' deaths, even though their bodies are never found and their friends have no idea what happened to them.
Mugezi's uncanny omniscience takes some getting used to, but the effort is worth making. Isegawa's method of portraying a broad swath of national history through the wise eyes of a young observer has its precedent in such reality-bending epics as GŁnter Grass's The Tin Drum and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Mugezi and all the members of his extended family play out, in microcosm, the upheavals of postcolonial Africa: the diaspora from stable rural societies into hectic cities governed by money rather than loyalties. Mugezi learns that he must be devious and tough simply to stay alive. He fights what he sees as the tyranny of his parents and the authoritarian rule of the priests at his school. For a while, he idolizes Amin's power and intransigence. But this feeling fades, and the stroll he takes through anarchic Kampala, his adopted urban home, just after the overthrow of Amin in 1979 becomes a harrowing hell. Precious few first novels are as phantasmagoric or as haunting as this one.