- Beasts of No Nation
The last sentence of this book is worth the 142-page journey to it. Written in the voice and patois of a child soldier in an unspecified war-torn African nation—a dialect evoked mainly by overuse of the progressive, singular/plural confusion and the occasional incongruous vocabulary, all to a range of effects—this novel is less a journey than a jaunt through the kind of horror we the more fortunate have seen and wondered at in television coverage from far across the Atlantic. At a certain midway point readers might wish that this elemental story, almost parable-like in its starkness and simplicity except for the lack of an easy and comforting moral, would cast more light on the specific dynamics of the ferocious conflicts that have driven people to such breathtaking extremes of slaughter. Here are only two sides, a "Government" and "rebels," in whose camp we're hosted by our narrator, Agu, when his town is invaded, his mother and sister set on a truck to flee, while his father stays behind to help guard the village. Early on, Agu's anxious thoughts are on their eventual reunion, but within ninety pages, from the other side of childhood, he matter-of-factly accepts that "my father is dying in this war." Throughout the course of these pages, time and other quotidian conventions of human existence dissolve, and all we have to orient ourselves by is this voice, its speaker disoriented himself: "Time is passing. Time is not passing. Day is turning into night. Night is turning into day. How can I know what is happening?" He is "not even having one uniform because I am too small." He is "liking my shirt even if it is dirty and I am having to fold the sleeve a whole six time." And he's worried about killing: if he's "only doing what a soldier is supposed to be doing, then how can I be bad boy?" But then he's high on "gun juice," "feeling in my body something like electricity and I am starting to think: 'Yes it is good to fight.' [End Page 160] I am liking how the gun is shooting and the knife is chopping. I am liking to see people running from me and people screaming for me when I am killing them and taking their blood."
In between the abominations Agu perpetuates and others perpetuate upon him, Agu remembers—sometimes only in literal dreams, so inescapable is his reality—his parents and scenes from his village, including the dancing during a rite of passage to manhood that in his case, he knows, will be replaced by the war's own terrible rituals. He dreams of becoming "Doctor or Engineer" after the war and getting fat, "because big men are always fat; they are always having so much to eat." He cares for his friend Strika and, briefly, another, Hope, who's soon dead, and he observes the adults he's with, like Commandant and Luftenant, and villages and landscape, describing both people and place with a similar kind of wondering flatness, though closely enough to distinguish character traits in the former, beauty and destruction in the latter. He even makes the occasional joke, sometimes a muted private one, more often the grim humor of soldiers in the bush: "Everyone here is doing zero zero one . . . no breakfast, no lunch, only dinner." But for all the flatness of his tone, the monstrosity of his killing and the limits of his language, Agu is a person: nuanced, complex and alive.
So finally it seems that Uzodinma, not an African himself but an African American with a degree from Harvard, has deliberately cast his light on the dynamics that are the real mystery, the only ones that ultimately matter: the individual, interior dynamics of human beings who kill in this way. This powerful first novel is a reminder that books can still take us where video and data analysis, even satellite-fed images and instantaneous computer computations, can't: inside, right up next to...