Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review: an engrossing and intimate read
An extraordinary novel that is unafraid to examine Uganda’s rich culture
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: for a debut novelist to be able to tackle a country’s history with such an unflinching and confident gaze is, frankly, astonishing
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
No term makes me shudder more than a novel described as a “multi-generational epic” (though “timely” is close behind). Kintu, the debut novel by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, is one of these sprawling, epic novels. It is based around five multi-generational stories that scatter and shock and merge. Its narration loops from the distant past to the present to the touchable past and back again. There are numerous characters and it does rely, at times, on good memory.
But unlike so many donnish generational novels, Kintu is an entertaining, engrossing, and, crucially, intimate read. It is an epic that doesn’t ignore character for scope. Rather, Kintu is a novel that thrives on its compassionate investigation of the individual within the boundaries of an epic, within the boundaries of a nation’s rapidly changing identity.
The novel begins with the brutal rabble-led murder of Kimu Kintu on January 5th, 2004 – a date that recurs along with hay fever, twins and madness – before the novel shifts to 1850, and pre-colonial Uganda. It’s here we meet Kintu, an unassuming and sexually-pressured Ppookino (governor), who must journey with his entourage to greet the newly installed kabaka (king) of Buganda. During this trip, Kintu, after witnessing a minor transgression, scolds his adopted son Kalema with a slap to the head, which results in Kalema inexplicably dying and being hastily and improperly buried. Later, returning home, Kintu is unwilling to disclose the truth about Kalema to his beloved wife, Nnakato, or the boy’s father.
It’s from this casual act of violence and deception that a curse is laid upon the clan. In the subsequent sections, we meet the contemporary descendants of Kintu – the hunted Suubi; the religiously zealous Kanani; the anxious Isaac Newton; and the scholarly misfit Miisi, the father of the murdered Kimu – and uncover how the curse has mischievously twisted their lives and how it will, inevitably, toss them together.
It may sound like a breathless narrative but Kintu is no chore. Makumbi, a natural storyteller, is skilful at subverting our expectations of characters, and each book is propelled by a teasing sense of mystery. The prose is smoky crisp, and the book’s setting, be it the barren landscape of o Lwera or the bustling market in Nakaseke Town, is vividly conjured. It is also, helpfully, a funny book. Of course, there is a large endgame in motion – being an epic, after all – but thankfully Makumbi never forgets to please the reader, never allows the structure to feel rigid.
To talk about Kintu one must talk about Uganda. Its history acts as a rippling backdrop for the character-led drama. Undoubtedly, Makumbi possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of her native country but bar one or three moments of blunt explanation, this knowledge is deftly woven, and the plot never becomes knotted by fact.
Our characters deal with the shadows of Uganda’s history – be it the Bush War or Idi Amin– but it is in relation to their own personal histories: their sins. Colonialism is acknowledged, but it is less about the ravages wreaked by its impact, and more concerned with the modern individual coming to terms with its legacy and evolving past it. As Miisi suggests, in the past Africa’s limbs have been removed and replaced by Europeans’ and now this Africanstein “cannot go back to the operating table and ask for the African limbs. Africa must learn to walk on European legs and work with European arms.”
Some sections of the novel are less engaging than others. Sintu’s story, while initially steeped in intrigue through the ghostly sister, never generates the same energy as the other characters. The book’s ending also feels mild. In comparison to the gruelling build-up, certain strands conclude far too squeakily clean.
However, these are minor quibbles, and for a debut novelist to be able to tackle a country’s history with such an unflinching and confident gaze is, frankly, astonishing. There is no pandering in Kintu, no glossary for the ubiquitous Ugandan terms, no Anglicising of titles, no white layperson to explain how it works. Instead Makumbi has crafted an extraordinary novel that is unafraid and beautifully unashamed to examine Uganda’s rich culture. It is a novel that is proudly Ugandan; it is a novel that deserves to be widely read.