Fall Arts Preview: Books Listings

Beasts of No Nation

By Uzodinma Iweala ’04. HarperCollins, Nov. 1.

“Run!” hears young Agu, whose family is caught in the grip of a civil war that strikes an undefined West African country. Among flames and cries, the young boy, protagonist of the debut novel of Uzodinma Iweala ’04, “Beasts of No Nation,” naively runs towards a group of rebels dressed in rags. Caught in a trap of destiny, he has to choose between a brutal death or a brutal life. He chooses life and finds himself metamorphosed into one of those thousands of child soldiers dressed in rags, carrying guns heavier than their bodies, whose stories rarely float to the surface.

Here a child-soldier’s tale is not just told but felt, through the voice of Agu himself, which remains spontaneous and somewhat innocent while he tells of his transformation from the boy who sees his father brutally murdered to the beast who “bring[s] the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA every time and seeing just pink.”

But Iweala’s novel is not all about facts. The story itself is almost drowned out by a cacophony of screams and gun shots rendered by omnipresent onomatopoeias, portraying the violence of the war as well as the confusion in the boy’s mind. Throughout the story, Agu is torn between wanting to be a “good soldier” and not wanting to be a “bad boy.”

The absurdity of this situation is exactly what the 23-year-old author points at. Iweala is a Harvard graduate and received the Hoopes Prize for “Beasts of No Nation,” which he submitted as a creative thesis with the guidance of Jamaica Kincaid. Iweala, a Nigerian-American whose mother is the Nigerian finance minister, has worked with Nigerian child-soldiers in rehabilitation. He gives no illusory messages of hope. On the contrary, all hope is extirpated in the epigraph, in which Rimbaud’s forlorn words resound: “je parvins à faire s’évanouir dans mon esprit toute l’esperance humaine” (“I managed to make all human hope disappear from my mind”). Yet the act of telling Agu’s story must be a positive first step.

—Emer C.M. Vaughn

Books Listings

Saturday, October 1. “Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery,” by Helen Vendler. Prolific critic and Harvard professor examines the language of poets addressing absent entities. Princeton University Press.

Saturday, October 1. “Abducted,” by Susan A. Clancy. Harvard-trained psychologist explains how people come to believe they were abducted by aliens. Harvard University Press.

Tuesday, November 15. “Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics,” by Michael Sandel. The professor who teaches Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice” takes on current hot topics: abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, and stem cell research, among others. Harvard University Press.

—Emer C.M. Vaughn