In the opening pages of Uzodinma Iweala's first novel (adapted from his undergraduate creative writing thesis, which had no less illustrious an adviser than Jamaica Kincaid) young Agu is snatched from his village - situated in an intentionally unspecific African country - and from his family by a rebel militia he knows would just as happily kill him as conscript him. What unfolds over the next 140 pages is the dense and excruciating tale of a child soldier - that paradox of innocence and immorality that seems so alien to the very concept of childhood, but is the experience of so many around the world right now. Agu's new family, led by the charismatic and despotic Commandant, is held together by bonds of fear, born of the certainty of death for the soldier who shows anything but the most eager obedience, the most frenzied hunger for flesh and blood. This death grip of a familial bond seems claustrophobically tight until it is suddenly - and with nightmarish, vertiginous ease - released.
But how can a child like Agu define himself in the aftermath of this sort of belonging? How do you return to any semblance of youth in the absence of the familial support that the war destroyed and then coopted?
This is a very, very difficult novel to read, and despite its short length, it took me several months and a great deal of willpower to finish it. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable feat of craftsmanship for an author at the beginning of his career. This is, after all, a prolonged and attentive exercise in character and voice. The novel is told entirely in Agu's idiosyncratic and trauma-shattered words, filled with exclamations, elisions, repetitions and unexpected ventriloquisms. We are constantly aware of Agu's childlike but detailed (all part of the central paradox of trauma) impersonations of other voices. This is why it is significant that Agu's only friend in the militia is the silent Strika, whose withholding of speech is both a mark of protest in world virtually without free will and a sign of sincerity and immediacy.
Beasts of No Nation is a book so profoundly oral that it requires absolute concentration, sometimes even in a quiet room, alone, reading aloud. Most often noted by critics among Iweala's many carefully wrought stylistic experiments is his use of an insistent, unsettling present tense. Consider this remarkable passage in which Agu reflects on the violence of coming of age rituals before the war, and the present tense blurs the lines between memory, possibility, actuality, and the current:
By the river, tied to one palm tree by its horn and its leg an ox was always waiting and stomping and making long low noise that are making you to sadding very much in your heart. The whole village was watching as all the dancer is dancing in the shallow river until the whole water is shining with small small wave. Then the top boy is going to the village chief and kneeling before him while the other leopard and ox dancer are dancing around and around him. The chief is giving him real machete and saying something into his ear until the boy is going and chopping one blow into the neck of the ox. Blood is flying all over his body and he is wiping it from his mask with his hand. Then he is putting his hand where he is cutting and collecting the blood to be rubbing on his body. When he is finishing, all the other is doing the same until everyone is covering in so much blood. They are spinning and spinning in their leopard mask or ox mask until KPWOM! the drum is sounding.
Everybody is knowing that to be killing masquerade you are removing its mask.
All of the dancer is removing their mask.
All of the spirit are dying and now all the boy is becoming men.
I am opening my eye and seeing that I am still in the war, and I am thinking, if war is not coming, then I would be man by now. (56)
The immediacy of Iweala's language takes us dizzyingly into Agu's head, and it is difficult to inhabit someone consciousnous with this level of intimacy. But these same qualities also make it impossible to distance yourself from the events of the novel, or to romantize them, as so many foreign treatments of African narratives do. The present tense seems to me to be in the service of expressing this inescapable immediacy of trauma, of memories that can be approached but cannot be reconciled through masquerade or narrative. Beasts of No Nation is difficult to read because it is so successfully wrought (although, as a study in character, it pays scant attention to plot, moving swiftly through the conventional - if sadly true - landmarks of child abuse and war crime). The immediacy of the prose is truly oppressive. As this sort of tale should be.
Beasts of No Nation
New York Times Notable Books Challenge Selection - 3/12
(Review of Twilight of the Superheroes to come soon, I hope!)