Africa persists as the world’s darkest continent. While centuries of exploration, exploitation and colonialism have shed light on its cultures and wilderness, there is now a fierce media blackout over many war-torn West African nations.
The media simply aren’t writing stories about HIV, refugee camps, or the forced conscription of children into a never-ending series of bloody regional wars.
Journalists blame the public’s lack of interest, the public blames journalists’ ties to corporate interests, but the result is the same. the plight of millions of Africans remains unreported and seldom discussed in American media.
Thus, Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, arrives at an opportune moment. Socially conscious Americans will learn a great deal from this book about current West African conflicts. Iweala describes various battlefield horrors from the point of view of Agu, a boy roughly ten years old who enjoys a comfortable life before war tears his family and village apart.
Although his mother and sister escape, Agu’s sees “bullet making my father to dance everywhere with his arm raising high to the sky like he is praising God.” Later, the rebel army beats Agu before conscripting him. Agu is one of only a few children in his unit, but all rebel soldiers are required to kill both civilians and government soldiers. Early in the novel, his Commandant forces him to kill an enemy solider: “Commandant is taking my hand [holding the machete] and bringing it down so hard on top of the enemy’s head and I am feeling like electricity is running through my whole body. The man is screaming, AYEEEIII, louder than the sound of bullet whistling and then he is bringing his hand to his head, but it is not helping because his head is cracking and the blood is spilling out like milk from coconut.”
Beasts of No Nation contains several graphic scenes of violence, including a particularly brutal murder of a woman and her young daughter. Later in the book, a longer chapter describes how the Commandant sexually abuses Agu. Although young Agu is telling his own story in simple language, this material is probably too brutal for most readers under the age of sixteen.
Iweala gives Agu a quasi-Nigerian pidgin voice similar to a Chinua Achebe character. Unlike Achebe, however, fellow Nigerian Iweala does not provide omniscient narration for his tale, nor does he pepper his dialogue with foreign words or phrases. Iweala, stylistically departing from his famous countryman, relates the entire tale in Agu’s uneven English, allowing for little embellishment or style. Agu’s use of metaphor, his venting of emotion and his minute to minute reportage of all his own movements and sensations are stridently consistent with a ten year old’s perspective. The novel is written as a child’s stream of consciousness, which occasionally leaves the reader longing for a more coherent plot structure.
At times, Iweala’s choice of narrator works for the novel, especially in the more graphic scenes of sexual abuse or physical violence, where Agu’s natural curiosity compel him to observe every detail. Adults in Agu’s predicament would look away, but Agu is experiencing a whole new world, and is able, with a child’s logic, to cleanly divide what is bad about war (killing), from what is good about war (companionship):
“Every night they are making fire and soldier is sitting down and talking. After some time I am getting up to go and sit with them around the fire. I am happying to be back at the camp because it is nice here – at least nicer than having to be in a place with all of its screaming people that you are killing all the time.”
At other times, Agu’s voice becomes tiring. He acts his age, constantly complaining to himself about eating only one meal a day, sleeping outside, and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. While a child of Agu’s age and status would complain about such things, the realistic and frequent repetition of such complaints begins to annoy the reader, detracting from the usual amount of sympathy one would feel for a boy in Agu’s situation.
On the whole, Beasts of No Nation is a compelling presentation of the life of a West African child solider. Iweala, who read many firsthand accounts of former child soldiers in researching his novel, creates Agu as a composite character, based on many true experiences. Had Iweala taken a more conventional storytelling path, i.e., writing from more than one perspective or allowing for a fair amount of omniscient narration, he could have crafted a more coherent story and created a more relatable character in Agu, rather than a child naturally limited by his own needs and perceptions.