Characters placed amidst death and destruction
Uzodinma Iweala’s “Beasts of No Nation” is a brutal yet beautiful novel by a writer who’s young in age (he was born in 1982) but not in talent. He avoids the opportunity to over-sentimentalize African politics and causes by presenting his story in a straightforward manner. “Beasts of No Nation” is not a call-to-action story meant to push high school and college students into political activism, but a subtle exploration of how, in spite of tremendous opposition, people in war-torn countries—whether it’s Sudan or Perú, Bosnia or Haiti—survive.
‘Beasts of No Nation” begins with Agu, a young boy in West Africa, thirsty and starving in a deserted shed. He has been abandoned; his mother and sister have fled the oncoming war, and his father has been killed trying to protect his village. Agu is found by a unit of guerilla fighters, and is coerced into join ranks with them in order to live. Though before the war, he was an outstanding student and an ardent Bible reader, Agu is forced to kill so that he may survive without his family. Chanting to himself, “I am not bad boy, I am not bad boy,” Agu decapitates defenseless villagers with his machete as the music of violence runs through his head. Forced to commit horrendous and humiliating acts, Agu’s humanity begins to fade.
Part of the joy of reading Iweala’s book is the voice in which it’s told: a first-person point of view, with almost no past tense. This might read clumsy and cumbersome at first, but saying it aloud creates the aural illusion of Pidgin English, similar to some of the narratives that Chinua Achebe and Amos Tutuola have used in their works. And this unique voice also serves to make Agu’s narrative less like a story, and more like an oral testimony of his life.
“I wrote and write about violence, because there is something fascinating and inspiring about the human ability to cope with and prevail over the worst of circumstances,” Iwaela has said. Like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Iweala places his characters in the midst of death and destruction to better understand the basic human element that pushes us all to do good and evil. Novels such as “Beasts of No Nation” are alike terrible storms in which roads become flooded and tornados threaten to tear all away, but the next day the sun is brighter and the air is cleaner than you’ve ever seen. Or as Herman Melville once said after completing “Moby Dick,” “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.”