Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu is one of the hit novels of 2017. A historical drama, it tells the story of an 18th century Ugandan patriarch whose actions bring misfortune on his descendants. Kintu is a cross-generational novel that jump-cuts across centuries and decades. To say the story is gripping is an understatement. Kintu is a certifide unputdownable!
The novel was published in the United States a while back, in May 2016, but publicity did not really kick off until many months latter, so reviews are still coming in. The latest and, perhaps, most high-profile review yet is a piece written by Zambian-American literature professor and writer Namwali Serpell and published on The New York Book Review.
Serpell clearly loves the book. She praises Makumbi’s representation of history, writing: “Like Charles Dickens or Gabriel García Márquez, Makumbi ranges widely across time and social strata; her knowledge of Ugandan culture seems as precise as a historian’s.”
A good bit of the review is a series of fascinating literary analyses that teases out all that is complex, provocative, and innovative about Makunbi’s work.
For example, in the excerpt below, Serpell cautions against provincializing the novel and makes the case for why Kintu should be read as a novel that speaks to universal questions about life and humanity.
Africa contains more countries, languages, ethnic groups, and genetic variation than any other continent. We are united solely by our history of division. Yet African novelists are inevitably stuffed next to each other on panels and bookshelves. We are asked bafflingly broad questions about “African literature,” “African history,” and “African politics,” or lazy and predictable ones about poverty, disease, and war. It’s a gift, in some ways. Who wouldn’t want to be compared to greats like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, rather than the latest batch of contemporaries? Who wouldn’t want to feel relevant to real world issues? But it gets old. “Africa is not a country,” we’ve become accustomed to saying. Our fictions are neither about the continent as a whole, nor do they address only this limited set of Western stereotypes about it.
Oddly enough, despite all this generalizing and pigeonholing, African writers are rarely thought to speak to the universal—in the philosophical sense rather than the platitudinous one. But if, as Makumbi noted at an event in Brooklyn last June, the origin of the human species is probably East Africa, then why can’t Kampala be the center of a profoundly universal inquiry? As its two-faced title—man/thing—suggests, Kintu does in fact have a grand philosophical question in mind. The novel forces us to reckon over and again with what it means to be kintu, to be man, or human. This question plays out across certain boundaries: between men and women, between twins, between life and death, between “mankind” and “animalkind,” between good and evil, between human and supernatural worlds, between foreigners and family, and, of course, between humans and objects.
Thanks to Serpell for giving the book its proper due in this thorough and nuanced review of Makumbi’s magisterial work.
ORDER Kintu HERE.