In the world most of us are familiar with, children only pretend to be soldiers, shooting and killing people with their big guns, generally in video games. But what happens when that becomes reality? Children no longer imagine themselves as warriors serving a higher purpose. It is no longer a role they adopt, but a life they endure.
This is what Uzodinma Iweala’s character in “Beasts of No Nation” has come to face. Agu lives in an unnamed West African country ravaged by civil war. His father is killed and his mother and sister have long since fled, leaving the young boy alone and afraid. He is found by a group of insurgents, led by a man simply known as Commander. Agu is told that, if he joins them in their fight against the enemy, they will leave him unharmed. In other words, kill or be killed. The boy accepts, and the book recounts the events that follow.
Nigerian author Iweala has used the country’s “broken English” to tell Agu’s tale. The present tense is inserted while evoking past events, forming phrases such as “it is starting like this” or “I am remembering the soldiers who are coming to my village”; misspelled words encompass the pages, and grammatical errors are everywhere. You may find it awkward to read at first, but that quickly changes. The words feel like an incantation; you can’t stop reading, faster and faster, turning page after page, if only to reach the end. You begin to appreciate this unliterary lyrical voice the author has chosen for his character, and the book is almost unimaginable without it. Moreover, since the narrator is Agu himself, the author made a wise choice in letting him speak in this manner and not replacing the boy’s speech with his own skilled phrases.
The drama of this novel lies in Agu’s transition from unwilling to enthusiastic participant in the chaos and disorder. He describes himself as a “good boy” who once cherished his classes at school. At first, he tells us, “I am not liking to hear people scream or to be looking at blood. I am not liking any of these thing.” Yet, he eventually comes to enjoy the killing: “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.” It is often difficult to understand the things we do to each other in the name of war. Agu loses his innocence in more ways than one. However, even after Agu inflicts brutalities on innocent people, we still maintain the initial sympathy we felt for him at the start of the story.
Boy soldiers are often hidden in the shadows of the atrocities and sufferings perpetuated by war. Iweala has managed to portray their stories in such a hard-hitting manner that the reader is left physically and emotionally tormented by the thought of such incidents still happening today.
Read this book. Be appalled. I guarantee you will think about it long after you’ve turned the final page, for a story like this is not one to be forgotten.