Thursday, January 15, 2009

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

My sweat is burning my eye away. Now it is too hot because the sun is beating on my back and making my gun to warm so much that it is feeling like hot iron on my back. I know it is making mark and burning my back so I am like cow and belonging to one owner which is gun. I am sadding when I am feeling this gun in my back because I am thinking that first when this war is starting, I am wanting gun because I can be using it to protect myself. At this time, gun is belonging to me and it is going wherever I am carring it, but now it is just riding on my back like it is king and I am servant to be doing whatever it says. If it is saying go right, then my body is walking to the right even if I am struggling to go left, and if it is saying for me to stop, then I am stopping to catch breath, and if I am going down the hill with the other men, then it is saying go faster and it is pushing me down the hill just like that. I am not liking this at all and I am wanting to be throwing gun away into the bush, but if I am throwing gun away, then Rambo will be throwing me away because gun is more important than me. I am always remembering this.

Beasts of No Nation is the story of a young boy from an unnamed west African country pulled into a guerrilla war to which he feels no allegiance. We follow Agu as he marches with an army of poor, young men led by a severely twisted man known simply as Commandant. The group of warriors commit countless violent attacks against unarmed victims. At no point does the story describe a legitimate battle between the rebels and armed representatives of "Government." We see only looting and rape. Iweala colors the story with some flashbacks of Agu's life with his family before the war. His warm memories offering a stark comparison to the that which he now calls life.

The story itself is, in a word, brutal. I'd love to use the fact that this is a fictional work as a security blanket. To try and pretend that all the events therein were concocted in the mind of Iweala. But I, and anyone else who's ever picked up a news journal, know that this kind of thing has happened for decades... still happens today. Agu's swift, startling descent into violence is all the more horrific because of its directionlessness. We know nothing about the country that Agu's Commandant is rebelling against or the motives of the revolution. We know nothing about how the rebellion is faring or changing the face of the country. All we see are the small-scope atrocities that Agu witnesses day after day. There is no passage of time. Now he is a soldier. We're not given any idea of how long Agu has to endure the things he had to endure. We're only able to see how it changes him. Agu says simply that he was a child when the war started, and he is no longer. Page after page describes Agu's innocence being stripped away by fire and iron. He's forced to kill an unarmed man with a machete to prove his allegiance. He's forced to steal, to rape, to mutilate. In a turn that took me by surprise, the story eventually touches upon the sexual abuse of young boy soldiers by their "officers." I've never read of something that could be more accurately referred to as a living hell than Agu's tale.

And I think it's when those horrors start to change Agu's outlook that Iweala makes his only missteps. I almost refuse to criticize the book, because Iweala was only 23 when it was published. All I see when I read it, flaws and all, is his huge potential. But if I were to complain about the story, it would be about the way Agu's tone changes in the last third of the book. Iweala tries to show the reader that Agu has become more jaded, more weary of the things around him. That certainly comes through from the text, but the writing itself can be somewhat trite. Look at my selected passage, for example: The gun owns me, the gun has become my master. Another chapter has Agu describing war as a monster with a lion's head, a man's body, and a gun for a tail. Eh. I suppose that can be excused, though, since the story is told from (this is me guessing) a boy whose age ranges from maybe 10 to 14.

I really don't want to say that my time here in Cameroon has given me any added insight into the world of this novel, because in most ways it hasn't. It certainly colored my reading, however. The houses he describes sound like those of my neighbors. The expressions Agu uses, the items he describes being sold in market, and the images painted of the countryside could all be describing the village I live in. It really makes me thank God that I live in a peaceful country with a (mostly) stable government (knock on wood for me). I will say that time spent in the anglophone Northwest and Southwest provinces made the actual reading of the book much easier. Beasts is written in a sort of pidgin english. It's very similar to what you hear Anglophones here speak, with little to no pluralization, run-on sentences, unfamiliar uses of gerunds and prepositions, and various idiomatic expressions. If you've never been exposed to pidgin before, I imagine getting into the book could be a little slow going. But its really quite similar to English, so you can pick it up in no time. I think Iweala's choice to use this form of English makes the mind-numbing violence, so vividly described, much easier to process.

I 'm very comfortable recommending this book to anyone who thinks they can stomach it. It's only 140 pages, but it's certainly not a light read. As I said, I feel that the writing in the last third of the book is a little weak. But then, who I am I judge a 23 year old who put together a work this strong right out of college. I see nothing but big things for Uzodinma Iweala and I look forward to reading anything else he puts out.

Highlights: The pidgin writing just works, the childlike descriptions of setting and action
Lowlights: Depressing as all hell, some of the symbolism late in the book is a bit high-schoolish.

Edit: I just found out that Iweala is going to be graduating Columbia Medical School in 2011. I officially hate this paragon of man.


Christopher said...

And Jim takes the lead.

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