1 Famous in Kampala It is a good thing that time is a light, because so much of life is mumbling shadows and the future is just silence and darkness. But time passes, time’s torch illuminates, it finds connections, it makes sense of confusion, it reveals the truth. And you hardly know the oddness of life until you have lived a little. Then you get it. You are older, looking back. For a period you understand and can say, I see it al clearly. I remember everything.
It can be a brief passage, for a revelation. Only a few days after Julian first met him, he realized that what he had taken to be a smile on the face of U. V. Pradesh was really a look of exquisite, almost martyrlike suffering. The man’s whole name, Urvash Vishnu Pradesh, was the slushiest Julian had ever heard, a saliva-making name like a cough drop that forced you to suck your cheeks and rinse your tongue with sudsy syllables.
The fact that many people in Kampala had never heard of U. V. Pradesh made him more important in Julian’s eyes. He was said to be brilliant and diffi cult. He was smaller, more frenetic than any local Indian — the local Indians could be satirical, but they were sly. U. V. Pradesh’s face, tight with disapproval, gleamed in the Uganda heat. His hair was slick from his wearing a hat. Ugandan Indians didn’t wear hats, probably because Ugandan Africans sometimes did.
U. V. Pradesh seldom smiled — he suffered a great deal, or at least he said he did. Life was torture, writing was hell, and he said he hated Africa. He was afraid. Much later he explained to Julian that he felt intimidated by “bush people.” He had “a fear of being swallowed by the bush, a fear of people of the bush.” New to Uganda, U. V. Pradesh looked at the place with his mouth turned down in disgust. From some things he said about African passions and his own restraint, Julian had a sense in him of smothered fires.
Actually, U. V. Pradesh had reason to be afraid. The Kabaka of Buganda, Sir Edward Frederick Mutesa, whom Ugandans called King Freddy, was being threatened with overthrow and death by soldiers from the northern tribes. The mess came later, and was in turn buried by greater calamities that were much sadder and more violent even than U. V. Pradesh had predicted.
“Listen to me, Julian.” Julian did nothing but listen, and he wanted U. V. Pradesh to call him Jules, as his family and friends did.
“Julian, this will go back to bush,” U. V. Pradesh said, sometimes in a scolding way, sometimes as a curse. And that suffering grimace again. He walked in the slanting sun of Kampala, his shadow like a snare. “Al of it, back to bush.” Sure of something, or pleased by the sound, he repeated the phrase, a verbal tic called bis. He was always sure, so his repetitions were frequent, a little chant and echo in his speech, still with the faintest singsong of the West Indies — U. V. Pradesh’s birthplace, the setting of many of his novels — lingering in the intonation.
Julian started out knowing nothing, not any of this, not even what the initials U. V. stood for, and it was only long after that he understood. He was too young to look back, and knew only the terror of always having to look ahead at the looming darkness, and instead of reassurance seeing uncertainty and awful choices, or no choices, and risk, and doubt, feeling afraid.
When Julian was young and he squinted at the big unreadable map of his life, even the magnificent light of Africa was no help. Yet he was hopeful. He felt he had what he wanted, and especially he had baraka, as they said in Swahili — good fortune, blessings. He was a teacher, but he spent most of his time writing. It did not matter to him that he was unknown in America. He was famous in Kampala.
“Be grateful for what you have, Jules,” his father had told him before he left home. “N o one owes you a thing.” It was wise advice for someone going to an African country. Julian felt lucky every time something good came his way, and luckiest of all his first full year in Uganda — his third in Africa. He had a good job, a reliable car, and a well-shaded house. Uganda was the greenest place he had ever seen. He was in love with an African girl. She was nineteen and he was twenty-four. He was at work on a novel. His life had at last begun.
The African girl, Yomo Adebajo, was Julian’s own height, nearly six feet, and slender, from a tall, stately tribe in Nigeria’s Western Region. Julian had been traveling there the year before. He invited her to East Africa and, just like that, she crossed Africa to join him. In Uganda, which was a hothouse of steamy gossip and expatriate scandals, their liaison was singled out — their not being married, their livinng together, their aloofness from others in Kampala, and the way she dressed. West Africans, rare in Uganda, were much more exotic than whites or Indiansssss. Ugandan women wore skirts and dresses — “frocks” was their word — and Mother Hubbards, all drapes and frilly leg-of-mutton sleeves, oldfangled words for outdated fashions, designed by turn-of-the-century missionaries for the sake of modesty. Yomo stood out like a princess in a fable in her yellow and purple robes, her stiff brocade turban, and her sash that was woven with gilt thread.
This young woman had the dark, drugged eyes and sculpted face you see in certain bewitching bronzes from her region of Nigeria. In poor provincial Uganda she was taken to be an Ethiopian or an Egyptian — “Nilotic,” people said, believing her to be a visitor from the upper Nile, someone who, from her looks, might have arrived sitting upright, cross-legged, on a flying carpet.
Ugandans goggled at Yomo — they were smaller and had to look up — as though she were from some nation of the master race of blacks that lived beyond the Mountains of the Moon.
She just laughed at them and said, “These people in Uganda are so primitive.” Yomo was even more sensual than she looked. When she and Julian made love, which was often and always by the light of candles, she howled eagerly in the ecstasy of sex like an addict injected, and her eyes rolled up in her skull and she stared, still howling, with big white eyes like a blind zombie that sees everything. Her howls and her thrashing body made the candle flames do a smoky dance. Afterwards, limp and sleepy, stupefied by sex, she draped over Julian like a snake and pleaded for a child.
“Jules, give me a baby!” “Why do you want one?” “Because you are clever.” “Who says?” “Everyone says.” He was well known in Bundibugyo; people said hello to him in Gulu and West Nile; he was famous in Kampala. Part of the reason was that he wrote recklessly opinionated pieces in the local magazine Transition. He defended the Indians, he mocked the politicians, he insulted the tea planters and the sugar barons. A white planter wrote to the magazine and said he would hit this man Julian Lavalle if he saw him in the street.
But the deeper reason for his fame in Kampala had nothing to do with his writing. It was the fact that he had been named in court, in a prominent divorce case, as the Corespondent, the delicate legal term for the outside party who fornicated in an adultery. He had been promised that nothing would be revealed, but the day after the case was heard, his name was published in the Uganda Argus. Everyone read it, and he was put down as a sneak and a rogue because the cuckold (called the Petitioner) was his best friend.
Julian had not laid a hand on this man’...