- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

BEASTS OF NO NATION: A NOVEL

By Uzodinma Iweala

HarperCollins, $16.95, 160 pages

REVIEWED BY NOAH DEUTSCH

On the handsome cover jacket of Uzodinma Iweala’s “Beasts of no Nation” it says ‘a novel’ but at just over 140 pages, “Beasts” is more of a novella. Whatever the classification, the book is Mr. Iweala’s debut effort.

Mr. Iweala’s parents are Nigerian, but he is something of a local kid made good. Born in 1982, he attended St. Albans school here in Washington and went to Harvard, where he won numerous writing awards.

The narrative of “Beasts of No Nation” is unrelenting. Set in an unnamed West-African nation embroiled in civil war, the story is told by a young boy called Agu. Separated from his mother and sister, Agu witnesses the killing of his father as rebel fighters descend on his village. He is left for dead, but is discovered by a rebel outfit and begins a new life as an orphan and a conscript in the same loosely organized army that is responsible for the death of his family and fellow villagers.

His new life is his life as a beast named in the book’s title. “Beasts” is written in a highly distinctive style. Mr. Iweala crafts his narrative using the voice of Agu who speaks an English that is Africanized, replete with quirks of tense and cadence: “One day one soldier from our group is jumping off tall rock because he is saying he is finding heaven in all of the tree. I am thinking that he was madding in the head.”

The use of present tense throughout adds an immediacy to the story. But Agu’s voice is not just distinctly African, it is the voice of a young person who describes the horrors to which he is subjected in straightforward, unflinching language. His youth, the nakedness of his feelings, give his words power and at the same time gives more credibility to the story.

Agu is caught up in things which he does not understand, adult things like war, killing and depravity, but we never feel that he is part of that world, even though he is forced to participate in it. The writing, despite the subject matter, is not devoid of lyricism.

Indeed, there is a richness to the prose, especially when Mr. Iweala tackles the points of the story that are most disturbing. In this passage, Agu is forced to kill for the first time:

“It is like the world is moving slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face.

“The enemy’s body is having deep red cut everywhere and his forehead is looking just crushed so his whole face is not even looking like face because his head is broken everywhere and there is just blood, blood, blood … . I am hearing hammer knocking in my head and chest. My nose and mouth is itching. I am seeing all the color everywhere and my belly is feeling empty.”

It is the commandant, as he is called, the leader of the rebel militia group, who gives Agu the fateful choice of kill or be killed. For the commandant, killing is “like falling in love.” He is the very face of the insane brutality of the war.

Mr. Iweala does not cease for an instant in casting the perverse relationship between the commandant and Agu. In addition to his psychological control, the commandant exerts real physical control over his charge, not only forcing Agu to kill, but also to submit to his sexual appetites.

It all adds up to a grim life for Agu. It is horrible to read about such a profound disintegration of society, where children must become warriors and killers of the innocent, and not feel a hopelessness knowing that the story has played out in real life many times before, in places like Sierra Leone and Sudan.

But while it is true that the characters and the narrative are drawn in very broad strokes, Mr. Iweala is able to save his book from becoming mere social commentary. He accomplishes this by focusing the story not on the horrors of war, and the way in which the men and boys involved are made beastly, but on Agu’s inner struggle to maintain a sense of who he is and where he came from.

Agu does not give himself over to the beast within; he maintains a sense of his own humanity even in the face of such senseless, relentless cruelty. By focusing on Agu’s personal conflicts, Mr. Iweala quietly proves that his story not be confined to Africa or the modern problem of child warriors there.

It is his depiction of Agu’s psychological conflict, a theme as old as literature, that imbues Mr. Iweala’s work with literary clout beyond its modern subject matter, and gives shape and nuance to what otherwise would be little more than an exploration into the depths of human depravity.

Noah Deutsch is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.

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