Friday, August 18, 2006

Read: "Beasts of No Nation" by Uzodinma Iweala

Read: Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala, 2005, 006079867x

A very good novel but difficult to finish; short at 142 pages, showing that succinct writing can really pay off.

Told by Agu, a boy soldier, during an unnamed African war. Agu's narration jumps around but it mostly covers his time as a boy soldier. Agu is about eight to ten years old and before the war loved to read and attend school. He had aspirations of being a doctor or engineer.

As the war starts, Agu's sister and mother flee with the UN as refugees and Agu and his father stay behind. Agu's father is killed when their village is attacked and Agu runs. He is eventually captured by a rebel group run by the "Commandant". The Commandant is as murderous towards his own soldiers as the civilians he orders those soldiers to rob, rape and murder.

Agu joins in the bloodshed, to do otherwise is to be killed. His only friend is Strika, another boy soldier, who has not spoken since his own family died. Agu and other boy soldiers are regularly raped by the Commandant. The intense pain, shame, hopelessness and anger of Agu's first raping causes a suicide attempt in a river. Unfortunately, Agu becomes a favorite of the Commandant until the Commandant is later killed by a Lieutenant.

Agu lives through shootouts, shellings, bombings, forced marches, constant hunger, terror, the haunting memories of family and home, and forced participation in the deadly, bloody beatings of both enemy and fellow soldiers. Agu is sure that escape from the war is impossible; but, after the death of Strika and the pain and hunger of a forced march he drops his gun and walks into the bush. The last chapter describes Agu's time in "heaven": an orphanage where he has clean, new clothes, plenty to eat, daily baths and his own room.

I took two or three days to read through the seven pages Agu uses to describe his rape. Agu only describes once his part in the all the killing; Agu is afraid of judgment by God and man against what he sees as his complicity in rape and murder. The brief final chapter is a unique view into the aftermath of the war. Rather than being a 10 year old refugee, Agu is a 10 year old combat veteran.

Further thoughts: I automatically dislike the author for being a successful Harvard graduate and good writer. Also, I wonder if Uzodinma ever drinks Ouzo? Was the horrible posed photo on the dust jacket his selection, or the publisher's? I'll keep an eye open for his next novel.

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