Beasts of No Nation
Here is another Hidden Treasure (click the link), an outstanding debut by young Uzodinma Iweala about whose book Salman Rushdie said “This is one of those rare occasion when you see a first novel and you think, This guy is going to be very, very good.”
And indeed this novel is so special in so many ways. It is the coming-of-age story but unlike any other stories from that subgenre. As its title suggests “Beasts of no Nation” is one dark story where you’ll hardly find any consolation or even hope. I was especially attached before I even started to read this novel because I’m a huge fan of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (on the photograph), one of the most prominent figure in Nigerian cultural and political scene; After his death Fela’s son Femi Anikulapo Kuti has continued his father’s mission, battle against violence, corruption, injustice, dictatorship of (not only) Nigerian government, etc. with music. (I was on Femi’s concert few years ago and it was amazing!). Anyway this book is named by Fela’s song “Beasts of no Nation” and this is one part from it:
[…] MANY LEADERS AS YOU SEE DEM
NA DIFFERENT DISGUISE DEM DEY-OH
ANIMALS IN HUMAN SKIN
ANIMAL-I PUT-U TIE-OH
ANIMAL-I WEAR AGBADA
ANIMAL-I PUT-U SUIT-U […]
If you’d like to read whole lyrics here is the link: Beasts of no Nation Lyrics (and if you don’t know Botha was the apartheid-era president who led South Africa through its worst racial violence and deepest international isolation. You’ll see his name in the song)
The language in the book is the same as in the song: almost all verbs are in infinitive and constructions in the phrases are sometimes impossible, I’d never use any of them. And that is where my own sensation about the novel is inferior in comparison with the sensation of the reader whose mother tongue is English. Reading your own language in this variant must enrich entire emotion about the book and make you closer to the characters and entire environment. *sigh*
Just as Fela’s song is telling about horror the racial conflict so does Iweala’s book about civil war but from different perspective. This is story about Agu, young boy in unnamed West African country. We know it is in (west) Africa because he is mentioning colour of the skin, yam (who is growing in West Africa), the way he talk (the same as the way Fela sings!), and the way of killings – machete. But that same story can be settled in any other country (I was often thinking that must how the felt my compatriots in the war regions few years ago when the country I was living in was tiring apart.
Agu is a son of local schoolteacher and very religious mother, always thirsty for knowledge who doesn’t know what suffering is until the stories of a war in the country stopped to be stories and became part of his own life. This book is kind of his memoirs.
And being so young (7-10 years of age in my opinion) his vision of war and explanations are so touching. In one moment he says something like this part of the country is so green and full of trees so maybe government was angry at us because God has given us water and them on the north of the country (where government is settled) not.
His disorientation is complete. After losing his father he’s been found by some guerilla movement who recruited him and that’s ho he became soldier. In that hornet’s nest where hierarchy is based on the gun he’s under enormous influence of the Commandant, a dominant figure (in which he probably finds replacement for his father is some very weird way) who’s giving him (and the rest of the gang) totally twisted idea of the war and enemies. Commandant is implanting Agu’s personal goal in his mind: “If you are staying with me, I will be taking care of you and we will be fighting the enemy that is taking your father”; goal that is so obvious in contradiction to Agu’s nature: revenge.
We are watching the worst kind of manipulations and brain washing (that will in one precise moment become disgusting!) which is actually not that hard when your target such a young kid.
Agu’s inner struggle is so painful to watch. He as a very religious kid in the way children can be religious, he knows that what they are doing is very wrong so he often convincing himself that he is not bad boy, that his acts will be forgiven, that he’s doing all these things because he is soldier and killing is what soldier do; it’s his job to kill the enemies … even when the enemy is a woman with her small daughter [because Commandant said that those are their enemies who have killed their families]. But that is not all what soldier is:
“Sometimes I am wanting to cry very loud but nobody is crying on this place. If I am crying, they will look at me because soldier is not supposed to be crying”
Agu is constantly between these extremes: his own nature and the projection of something he must become. He’s aware that if he doesn’t let go his nature he’ll not survive so sadness is overwhelming him but then he knows he mustn’t be sad because “being sad is what happens to you before you are becoming mad. And if you are becoming mad, then it is meaning that you are not going to be fighting. So I cannot be sad because if I cannot be fighting, then either I will die, or Commandant will be killing me. If I am dead, then I will not be able to find my mother and my sister when this war is finishing” and there he is, constantly lost in one emotional labyrinth in which he is roaming trying to stay alive, to preserve his mind and to find an exit. And the labyrinth is a place where “… one evil spirit sitting in the bush just having too much happiness because all the time he is eating what he wants – us; and seeing what he is wanting to see – killing. So he is just laughing […]” And while that evil spirit is feasting little Agu is starving: “I am so hungry that I am wanting to die but if I am dying, then I will be dead” At first moment this sentence might sound funny but in reality it is tremendously terrifying. Just look how lost this kid is.
If you think that I’m taking this piece of fiction too personally you are probably right because this story is reality in so many places and we are so ignorant. We do know but, hey it’s not in our backyard. Truth, the same thing was in my country not so long ago so I‘m probably more sensitive and could more easily transmit myself in Agu’s story.
This is one universal story that can be settled as I wrote in the beginning in every part of the world. It is opening so many topics and among major ones is use of the children in armed conflicts. They are so easy for manipulation and the scars they are getting are life long.
“[…] and I am wanting to ask it why it is even thinking to shine on this world. If I am sun, I will be finding another place to be shining where people are not using my light to be doing terrible terrible thing.”
Oh dear Agu, it seems that Sun should pack its things and move far away from this galaxy …