I’m always cautious when a young writer is proclaimed as the next great thing. That’s the kind of press Uzodinma Iweala has been getting with his debut novel, Beasts of No Nation. While I’m still not quite ready to join the adulation force but this book is undoubtedly a worthwhile read.
Beasts of No Nation tells the tale of Agu, a school-age boy in an unnamed country in western Africa that is in the throes of a civil war. When Agu’s mother and sister are evacuated from their village, Agu remains with his father. After his father is killed by a band of fighters who invade the village, Agu escapes but when later found by the fighters is given a Hobson’s choice: join the band or be killed. It is the first of an almost continuous series of no-win options for Agu. As he notes near the end of the book, “I am so hungry that I am wanting to die, but if I am dying, then I will be dead.”
Two things have perhaps generated the buzz about this book. One is the how well told the story is given the fact its author hails from Washington, D.C. and is a graduate of Harvard University. Iweala, however, slips with ease into his character and tells Agu’s story compellingly in less than 150 pages. What helps accomplish that and is likely more responsible for the attention the novel has received is its style. The book is written in the first person and Agu’s phraseology and vocabulary are that of a youth who has not had the opportunity to complete his education. Although somewhat off putting at first, the voice tends to make Agu’s story more believable, enabling the reader to better see the tale as the viewpoint of a young boy.
And this young boy encounters the entirety of the horrid experience of war and a disintegrating society. He and his compatriots are fed drugs to supposedly make them fight better. He is instructed to kill and finds himself doing so with a removal and ferocity that surprises even him. In fact, he comes to find himself enjoying the killing. He is forced to join in the raping, pillaging and plundering that occurs when the band seizes villages. He and his sole friend in the unit — an adolescent boy who never speaks — become the subjects of sexual abuse themselves.
Agu is certain of very little, only that he hates where he is and life as he knew it is over. “I am knowing I am no more child so if this war is ending I cannot be going back to doing child thing.” Yet despite the destruction of that childhood, Agu’s story still reflects the naiveté of a child. Not once do we have any indication why the war occurred, the purpose or ideology for which Agu and his fellows are fighting, or even what anyone hopes the war will accomplish. To the contrary, the maps Agu sees at various times in his story do little more than overwhelm him. The war is no overriding mission with some grand scheme. Instead, it is merely a fact of a daily life that is brutal and dreadful, a life made even more horrible by Agu’s age and the emotional stupor into which it puts him.
Time is passing. Time is not passing. Day is changing to night. Night is changing to day. How can I know what is happening? It is like one day everything is somehow okay even if we are fighting war, but the next day we are killing killing and looting from everybody. How can I know what is happening to me? How can I know?
Beasts of No Nation gives us a small bit of insight into what is happening to too many Agus in too many places the world.