Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu was published in the UK by Oneworld this year. It was purchased by the library in which I worked as book buyer shortly afterwards, and I happened to be the person who processed it for the shelves. Whenever I was fortunate enough to process novels (sadly, it seemed as though we ordered far more soulless business textbooks than anything else), I would read their first paragraphs in the hope of finding something I might like to read in full. I made a note of every novel that gripped me with its opening and kept my list of titles safely stowed inside a drawer. Kintu was one of those novels.
After beginning with a prologue set in Uganda in 2004, Makumbi takes us back to eighteenth-century Buganda and introduces us to Kintu Kidda, the Ppookino of Buddu province. A new king has recently acquired the throne by violent means and Kintu must now travel to his palace and pay homage. Along with his followers, Kintu takes his fostered son Kalema on the journey and intends to help him find a job in the king’s court, but circumstances take a turn for the worst when Kalema breaks a taboo by drinking from Kintu’s gourd. Kintu strikes Kalema’s face to punish him and unwittingly brings about his death. Burying Kalema’s body on the road, Kintu and his band continue with their journey. On their return to Buddu province, Kintu keeps Kalema’s death to himself and attempts to suppress the guilt he feels for the young boy’s killing. When Kalema’s biological father Ntwire discovers that his son is dead, he curses Kintu and his family and establishes a burden that the clan will bear for centuries, as Makumbi shows us in the subsequent sections of the novel.
In presenting twenty-first century Uganda, Makumbi does not reject the past or traditional ways of life. Rather, new and old are brought together in a bold configuration. Depicted in the novel is a seemingly comprehensive cross-section of Ugandan society — educated and uneducated, rich and poor, religious and scientific, real and supernatural — and it feels as though Makumbi here encapsulates the hybrid nature of Uganda and its people in the present day, especially when the various characters in the novel are brought together in its final book. Complementing this is her insistence that the history of a place and people is as important as their present in creating their identity, suggested not only by the multi-generational impact of the curse, but also by the frequent interpolation of Uganda’s past, from the warring kings of Buganda to the regime of Idi Amin.
Particularly intriguing in the novel is the portrayal of mental illness and its relation to the supernatural. The lines between mental illness and supernatural influence are at all times blurred and permeable. Suubi Nnakintu’s illness, for example, appears to be a form of schizophrenia, yet is understood to be a sign of her possession by the spirit of her dead twin sister Ssanyu. Makumbi never once unveils the truth of Suubi’s suffering, preferring a suggestive mix of modern diagnosis and traditional belief, of social and historical circumstance and personal inclination, to definitive statements on cause and effect. At the end of the novel, the reader is none the wiser. The afflictions of the characters can be attributed to medical or social causes or to the operation of the spirit world in the lives of Kintu’s family. Makumbi’s refusal to determine the cause of these afflictions one way or another, to state categorically that the curse is or is not responsible, is a far more tantalising choice than open revelation.
A sweeping epic dealing with family ties and kinship, Kintu is a skilful blend of past and present, history and legend, tradition and modernity. Makumbi’s treatment of her characters is compassionate and not judgemental, even when their actions are deserving of some censure, and the way in which she draws them all together is both masterful and enigmatic. Kintu is an impressive debut novel from a writer with a distinctive voice. I look forward to encountering this voice again in Makumbi’s Manchester Happened, a collection of short stories due to be published next year.