Two books that immediately come to mind, in trying to make sense of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ambitious new novel Kintu, are Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Like The Slap, Kintu concerns the unexpected and dramatic consequences, for a widening group of people, of a rash act of violence that an adult commits against a child. Like Things Fall Apart, Kintu reveals the profound fracturing of a local African community that results from uneven experiences of modernity impacting its traditional ways of life.
That said, the overwhelming scale and sweep of Makumbi’s effort stands in dramatic contrast with these novels. Kintu explores some three centuries of fraught, often tragic human experience, focused on a Ugandan nobleman and his descendants, and the actions, memories, traditions and spirits that both motivate and haunt them.
The novel’s main action takes place in two distinct settings, the 18th-century environs of the Buganda kingdom, and that of its colonial and postcolonial successor, late-20th-to-early-21st century Uganda. Kintu Kidda presides over a clan in a provincial outpost of Buganda and, upon the emergence of a new king in 1750, leads a delegation on a long and difficult journey to join other governors in demonstrating their fealty to the new ruler. Kintu Kidda is no stock big man in a village: melancholic, earnest, and weighed down by the pressures of having to provide for multiple wives and children, while also uncertain how to navigate potentially lethal court politics, he’s a tired alpha male prone to taking out his stress on those around him.
When his amiable if careless son Kalema sips water from his father’s gourd, breaking a taboo concerning the exclusivity of Kintu Kidda’s cookware, he receives a great slap in recompense, the force of which kills him – to everyone’s shock, especially Kintu Kidda himself. “He had never struck a child, he had made all the right sacrifices for the journey, he had not offended any god”; and yet his life and the lives of his descendants are profoundly affected by this act and by the half-truths, concealments and suppressions associated with it, which eventually send the broken father into self-imposed exile.
Makumbi impressively establishes a dual source of meaning from the boy Kalema’s untimely death and re-entry into the novel as an unquiet spirit. The event and subsequent presence can be understood as both a genuine, permanent curse for the family, and as an appropriately fatalistic, psycho-familial justification for unrelated failings through the centuries. Makumbi explores this latter theme through the story of Kintu Kidda’s descendants, all of whom are preparing, with differing levels of interest, for a great reunion of the clan in 2004.
While the novel’s 18th-century material presents a coherent, self-contained and consistently engaging narrative, its more contemporary material is far messier and uneven, both in terms of the individual lives of characters – who experience Idi Amin’s rule, guerrilla warfare, small-town mob violence, Christian missionary work, HIV diagnoses and false paternities – and in their relationships to each other and to Kintu Kidda.
Some of the individual storylines stand out more than others. Suubi is a sickly and unwanted little girl who in the late 1980s goes to work for a wealthy family in their fine home in the Makindye Hill district of Kampala. Independent of its connection to the rest of the novel, Suubi’s story is moving in its balancing of the girl’s longing to be part of a family and a world more comfortable and stable than anything she has ever known, and her wise check against such longing: “Focus on the beautiful things like their bathtub, rich food, and they do Christmas like in films. But you can’t be their child.”
Elsewhere, Isaac survives a far rougher childhood than Suubi’s to become a promising university student and, eventually, a popular disco DJ and full-time ladies’ man. By 2004 he’s an engineer and also a widowed father. His young son Kizza’s serious illness may be related to the disease that killed his mother, which Isaac himself may also have, though he’s loath to have this confirmed: “The day Isaac took Kizza back to school he sat in his office dejected. He ignored the two letters on his desk. Instead, he contemplated future hospital runs, Kizza’s schooling disrupted and the boy’s pain and suffering. What if he died first and left Kizza, sick and at the mercy of the world?” His own experience, and the experience more broadly revealed across this novel, offers little prospect of mercy.
But that prospect, however faint, remains. Indeed, throughout Kintu, through and beyond the massive cat’s cradle of connections that Makumbi works up between past and present, her characters press on, struggling to make sense of their situations – made difficult by assorted economic, social and familial pressures – and of what it means for them all to have this shared connection to a powerful, powerfully blighted man from long ago.
As one character observes late in the novel, people in this clan suffer “For knowing and refusing to know”; their survival depends on how they choose to carry these distinctive burdens and, at times, out of love and need and mercy, how they share the necessary effort with each other.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Oneworld, 432pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special