Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

"Uzo" Iweala  (U-zod-din-ma EE-wall-a) hails from a well-heeled Nigerian family, part of the vast diaspora situated in the U.S.  His father is a surgeon, and mother was Nigeria's Minister of Finance.  He wrote this story as a Harvard undergrad.  His grasp of native language is phenomenal.  The concept was born when attending a speaking engagement at Harvard by China Keitetsi, a young woman forced to fight in the Ugandan Civil War.  Most readers will imagine these lives as typical of the boy-soldiers of Sierra Leone.

As I began this magical little book, the lexicon of the 9-year old Agu struck me as a very powerful medium for telling the story of a boy forced to become a soldier, a killing machine.  His voice is "unliterary, yet poetic" (Baker, NYT 12/4/05).  The story is unimaginable without this voice.

It has precedence in Martin Amis' short story "What Happened to Me on My Holiday" in the collection Heavy Water.  Amis' story takes place in "Horzeleej Band" (Horseleech Pond, South of Wellfleet) and is narrated in an argot simulating his actual son, Louis, mourning the death of his step-brother.  The book is replete with onomatopoeia words like "TAKA TAKA TAKA," (p. 79) the sound of machine gun fire.  I am reminded of the Swahili term for motorcycle "piki piki piki," echoing the gentle sounds of a Honda 125 cc bike in the Tanzania bush.

The atrocities these boys are forced to commit are brutal.  "You are not my mother, I am saying to the girl's mother and when I am raising my knife high above my head.  I am liking the sound of knife chopping KPWUDA KPWUDA on her head and how the blood is just splashing on my hand and my face and my feets.  I am chopping and chopping and chopping until I am looking up and it is dark" (p. 51).  His commander is a pederast "Commandant is touching me and bringing my head to where he is standing at attention" (p. 84).  There's more: "he was telling me to kneel and then he was entering inside of me the way the man goat is sometimes mistaking other man goat for woman goat and going inside of them" (p. 85).  The man-boys are starving: "Everyone here is doing zero zero one.  I am not knowing what this is meaning before I am soldier, but now I am knowing that it means no breakfast, no lunch, only dinner" (p. 90).  Agu laments childhood lost: "I am knowing I am no more child so if this war is ending I cannot be going back to doing child thing" (p. 93).

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