Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

The cry of Africa's child warriors
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The Independent Culture

Children playing at soldiers has always been a favourite theme in art, fiction and autobiography, and one almost universally treated benignly. The reality of child soldiers, from drummer boys to African boy warriors, can be the stuff of nightmares. The most fortunate of today's malleable boy soldiers in Africa, who have sometimes visited untold cruelties upon others, are now quite rightly the subjects of rehabilitation rather than execution. It says something for the human spirit that the counsellors involved in this process as well as the children have both reported a certain measure of success. But, as this searing first novel makes clear, the task is a huge one. Macbeth is not the only one in blood stepp'd in so far as to wonder whether there now might be any possibility of turning back.

The author of Beasts of No Nation is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate, whose mother is currently the Nigerian finance minister. Drawing on his work with refugees and the memories of family members who fought in the Nigerian civil war, he has crafted a first-person account as told by nine-year-old Agu. Kidnapped by rebel forces after his mother had fled and his schoolteacher father is shot in front of him, Agu soon becomes a rapist and murderer himself.

Most evenings after battle is closed and the group has found shelter, he is regularly sodomised by the Commandant, the name adopted by the sadistic adult thug leading this small band of irregulars, often starving and cold themselves before they find one more village to torch or loot.

Finally, the band disintegrates, with the Commandant shot by his own troops and Agu finishing at a refugee camp to start the long process of turning back into a civilised being. He knows he has done terrible things, and is just starting to admit them when this novel ends.

Agu tells his story in a mixture of patois, biblical imagery, childish thinking and military slang. The verbal stew flows pretty effectively for pages but then sometimes coagulates when too much happens, but with insufficient words to express what is really going on. Deciding whether Iweala is a truly gifted author will have to wait until he writes a novel less emotionally charged than this.

As it is, the power of his material and its hideous relevance rolls all before it, making criticism seem almost an irrelevance as one blood-soaked page succeeds the next. This book about children that is in no sense a children's book deserves to be read, particularly by those with strong stomachs and the inclination to encounter some of the more horrific lows that exist in the world today.

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