(Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2017)
It may be that Kintu, the debut novel from Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, will stand as Uganda’s national narrative, in much the same way Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has for Nigeria. Literary history will tell. Indeed, its epic scope and Makumbi’s stated objective of following in Achebe’s footsteps to impart to Ugandans their own often-overlooked history (as Aaron Bady points out in his excellent introduction), make such comparisons unavoidable. But much as the book may endeavor to establish a national identity, it does so within the context of a twenty-first-century world, where globalization is the background against which the notion of a Ugandan self is sketched. The lines, then, are rough, tentative, subject to being redrawn at any moment. And that is what gives the novel its own two feet to stand on. Kintu may serve to tell the story of a nation, but it does so not with didactic certainty but like a pioneer peering into the unknown. And within this inquisitive gaze is the more compelling story, that of a constellation of individuals discovering their connections amid a complex and confusing world.
The novel, which flits back and forth across months, years, even centuries, opens with a violent death, which takes place in the book’s anchoring present, the year 2004. Then, as the reader is catching her breath, she is catapulted back to the eighteenth century. Here the narrative settles into the legend around which the rest of the plot pivots.
Set in the ancient kingdom of Buganda, among the Ganda people, it concerns a Ppookino named Kintu Kidda. (Ppookino being the approximate equivalent of a provincial governor, though, like many of the Luganda vocabulary scattered throughout the novel, the term is not glossed but is comfortably ascertained through context; this alone is evidence that Makumbi had Ugandans in mind as her intended audience, but non-Ugandans are not precluded from listening in. Perhaps that slight remove makes the narrative all the more tantalizing.) Outwardly, Kintu is undertaking a journey, with a small entourage, to Kyabaggu to pay his respects to the new kabaka (a kind of king) and put in an appearance at court. Inwardly, however, Kintu is wrestling with all the familial dramas of his homestead – his twin wives Nnakato and Babirye, his nine children (eight of which are sets of twins) which implies the question of his succession, and his adopted son, Kalema, whose father is a Tutsi shepherd living on the fringes of Kintu’s village with whom Kintu cannot speak because they do not share a common language. As the journey progresses, events set in motion will ripple through this tangled web of tribe and family to set the stage for a curse that will, itself, ripple through the generations. In what follows, Kintu’s story is replayed, in some form or another, in the life of each of four contemporary characters, whose connections to one another only become apparent in the novel’s final book. Here Kintu’s descendants converge on their ancestral territory for a reunion that is, more potently, an attempt to reckon with and break the curse brought down upon their progenitor so many centuries ago.
To be sure, Kintu is an ambitious novel, perhaps overly ambitious. Each of its six books would have made an engrossing read on its own, and at times it can feel as if the author is hurrying through a character’s personal CV or scrambling to tie up loose ends before moving on to the next character. But given the equally ambitious themes Makumbi addresses – identity, both individual and collective; family ties; materialism; fate; tradition versus modernism; sex and masculinity; colonialism; ethnicity; war; religion and societal taboos – one may respond that the structure is entirely appropriate, recalling such narratives as One Hundred Years of Solitude but with a realist bent, in the vein of Zola’s Rougan-Macquart series. At any rate, it makes for a page-turner, because just as the reader sinks into the story of one character, her assumptions are upended with the introduction of the next perspective. She then willingly surrenders her desire to remain with the previous story if only to discover how the author manages to knit this world together across the nebulous and often fluid familial ties.
And this would seem to be the thrust of the novel: Individual identity is only claimed by taking one’s rightful place within the family. Many of the narratives begin with a character on the cusp of adulthood, that is to say, of starting his or her own family, arguably the most definitive rite of passage in Ugandan society. But in a culture where village and tribal associations determine the individual’s marriage prospects, a step that seems relatively straightforward and independent to non-African readers, becomes freighted with the responsibility to discover where that individual comes from. All the characters begin isolated, sunk in some form of denial about their own history, but, for various reasons, stumble into their own pasts. Thus, despite the fact that the characters range in age from twenty-somethings to grandparents, the novel could be read as a bildungsroman, so important is this climb through the family tree in search of self-understanding.
Where Makumbi excels as a storyteller is her ability to shroud these family ties in mystery, keeping the reader guessing until the final book, aptly titled “Homecoming.” As Bady highlights for us in his introduction, Ugandan families are intricately constructed, and even Ugandans themselves struggle with the ambiguities of this text, in large part because childrearing is communal, and many relatives can and do lay claim to non-biological children. Thus Kintu makes use of the polysemy implied by words like “aunt” and “cousin” to build tension. Further, one individual may take on and become known by multiple names, a cultural convention to be sure, but also utilized quite deftly by the author to bring to the fore different aspects of the character’s multifaceted self. The final book, then, while a bringing together of the various narrative threads, ultimately leaves many questions unanswered, thereby implying that the search for self-understanding is a lifelong process, but one that is crystallized only from within the community.
This, then, is how the novel manages to enfold Ugandan identity into its wider significance. Not through its superb retelling of the national legend that is the backstory of Kintu Kidda (arguably less interesting for the reader than the modern-day stories), nor even through the weaving in of historical detail that gives non-Ugandan readers a crash course in post-colonial events. It is, rather, as a knitting together of isolated points of view, showing how the self is intricately connected with others, so much so that the individual has no meaning alone. And here, Makumbi surpasses her own objectives, for we might say the same for all of humanity, especially in this increasingly globalized world. Especially at this contentious moment in history, when the loudest voices would try to convince us that individuals, and by extension nations, are self-sufficient. For this reason, Kintu is a book not just for Ugandans, but for all of us.
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Amanda Sarasien is a writer and literary translator whose work has appeared in FLAPPERHOUSE, The MacGuffin, MAYDAY Magazine and The Puritan, among other publications. She also reviews at Reading in Translation.