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A child soldier hidden in the bush, machete in his hand, insects crawling slowly across his exposed flesh, is waiting for the order to kill. “You want to be a soldier enh? Well—kill him. KILL HIM NOW!”
This sort of guttural visceral action characterizes the majority of Uzodinma Iweala ’04’s “Beasts of No Nation”; the rapturously reviewed debut novel is the story of Agu, a child soldier in an unnamed African country.
“Beasts” was originally written as a creative thesis in Harvard’s English Department under the guidance of Visiting Lecturer on African American Studies and on English and American Literature and Language, Jamaica Kincaid. At Harvard, Iweala was a Mellon Mays Scholar, and his thesis won a Hoopes Prize. To his surprise, the thesis turned into a novel after Kincaid gave the manuscript to her literary agent.
As Iweala explains in a phone interview, he was first struck by the stories of child soldiers during his senior year in high school when he read an article about Sierra Leone’s conflicts, which inspired a short story.
In 2002, as president of the Harvard African Students Association, he invited China Keitetsi, a former member of the National Resistance Army (NRA) in Uganda and former child soldier, to speak, which only increased his interest.
“I got the opportunity to speak to her one-on-one,” he says, “and when I told her that my parents wanted me to be a doctor she said ‘I have no parents.’ I didn’t really know what to say, you know?”
The story of the then 26-year-old woman, who was abducted by the NRA at the age of 8, inspired Iweala to write his creative thesis.
The novel is written in a very particular style, a broken English in which present continuous seems to be the only tense, a style that requires some adaptation. But if this use of language can be annoying at first, it quickly becomes extremely engaging, lively, and believable as Agu’s original voice.
The spontaneous and dynamic narration causes an early attachment to Agu. When he does begin to kill alongside the rebel fighters, the result is a surprising complicity: The reader feels his guilt.
The narrative commences in the midst of an extremely violent and inexplicable war, during which his mother and sister flee and his father is killed. Agu is then abducted by a second group, rebel fighters who force him to become one of them: a soldier.
From this moment on, Agu’s life is a journey through all sorts of violence and brutality, led by the chilling figure of a “Commandant” who abuses him in all possible ways. Through the lens of Agu’s innocently poetic voice, the reader is compelled to enter a world of horrifying violence.
It is the Commandant who detachedly explains to him that killing “is like falling in love. You cannot be thinking about it, you are just having to do it.”
Horrifyingly, the reader is soon privy to the moment when Agu is “bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA every time and seeing just pink.” Despite the brutality of this scene, there is a certain lyrical component to the narration, which makes the reading even more devastating. The association with Agu also extends to protective feelings, which makes his skill at killing-to-not-be-killed morally ambiguous.
Building the narrative voice and characters, Iweala says, was challenging. “The characters are not real,” he explains; “they are character types that I found in research, and composites of different people.”
For the writing style, Kincaid directed him towards an array of African texts and books about child soldiers, including Dean Hughes’ “Soldier Boys,” that experimented with different forms of oral expression.
There is a certain humorous component to the language of “Beasts of No Nation,” a result of the onomatopoeias, the often witty images, and a sort of “noir” irony (such as “Commandant is helping some people to be dying”) which, coupled with the brutality of the novel, emphasizes the absurdity of the situation of child soldiers.
“I am not bad boy. I am not bad boy. I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing,” Agu says, in an attempt to placate his overwhelming feelings of culpability.
For the majority of the novel, readers are carried by this efficient and original style. Sometimes, though, Iweala’s narrative insights seem too mature for the young Agu.
At one point, Agu states “All we are knowing is that, before the war we are children and now we not.” It is a true and heartbreaking philosophical sentiment, but not necessarily the first one to come to a child in the midst of such on-the-ground chaos.
There is an average of 300,000 child soldiers fighting around the world at any given time. In African countries such as Uganda, Sierra-Leone, Burundi, and Liberia, as well as in many South East Asian countries, children, often under ten years of age, have been or are abducted by rebel groups, forced to fight, and are physically and sexually abused.
“Beasts of No Nation” isn’t, and doesn’t want to be, an informative or documentary novel. Iweala says his goal in writing the book was to “be engaging and make people think.” To create the proper atmosphere, he coupled the landscape of his native Nigeria with events that have happened in other countries.
“The experiences of child soldiers are similar everywhere,” Iweala explains.
And though the lack of specificity can sometimes be wearisome, it allows for a stronger emphasis on the emotional dimensions of Agu’s story, which achieves the level of classical tragedy without losing sight of that bush.
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