Tearing down boundaries
Uzodinma Iweala releases ?Beasts of No Nation?

‘Beasts of No Nation’ by Uzodinma Iweala; Harper Collins 2005; 160 pages.

by Joe Foster

zodinma Iweala (pronounced “Iweala”) is a young buck, 23, who just graduated from Harvard, probably with some kind o’ writin’ degree. He spends his time between D.C. and Nigeria, apparently born in the States. It says all that in the back of the book. It also says that he’s won a bunch of prizes for his stories, which I well believe. Beasts of No Nation is his first novel, and it tore down a few major boundaries of my protected, fortunate and privileged little world.

The novel, which just recently came out in paperback, is set in a nameless African country torn apart by the kind of brutal civil war that we read about on the back page of the newspaper and then promptly shrug off and forget while reading the horoscope. So often it’s too far removed from our lives and reported with an inhumanly precise procession of numbers and stats. Iweala shows us, through the eyes of a very young boy, the humanity behind these numbers. Agu’s age is never given, but he feels pre-teen. He speaks in hindsight of his love for books and school, “I am liking to read so much that my mother is calling me professor.” He dreams of becoming a doctor or an engineer, and he wants these things, not necessarily to help those around him, but to command the respect and largesse of the community; a very immature, although admittedly not merely young, way to look at the world and one’s place in it.

Agu is forced into a soldierly life by the very

butchers who orphaned him. He either fights or he dies. He chooses life, and so deals out death to innocents, armed with a drug-hazed mind and a machete. I feel compelled to warn potential readers that I probably couldn’t have finished this book if it wasn’t so beautifully and brilliantly written. I’m as desensitized to violence as the next bloke, but some of the things this poor kid went through hurt my soul. Honestly. The atrocities he committed made him a beast, and he was brought back to reality by the atrocities committed on him by others.

butchers who orphaned him. He either fights or he dies. He chooses life, and so deals out death to innocents, armed with a drug-hazed mind and a machete. I feel compelled to warn potential readers that I probably couldn’t have finished this book if it wasn’t so beautifully and brilliantly written. I’m as desensitized to violence as the next bloke, but some of the things this poor kid went through hurt my soul. Honestly. The atrocities he committed made him a beast, and he was brought back to reality by the atrocities committed on him by others.

Early on in the book, Agu is speaking of himself and another young boy when he says “All we are knowing is that, before the war, we are children and now we are not.” He was never able to go through the rites of manhood , but the world he has seen doesn’t allow for children.

Iweala writes with an unbelievable descriptive power. The boy, Agu, speaks with a lyricism and rhythm I’ve not seen before in another novel. It feels like you’re sitting with him while he tells his story; even the word he uses for the sound of explosions, “KPWEM!” brings to mind a little boy playing with toy soldiers in the sand box. This deceptive simplicity of thought and language serves to mask the intensity of the subject matter; much like the way Robert Frost used rhyme and meter to disguise the

pain in his poems. It takes a few paragraphs to get into the rhythm of how the boy is speaking, but once you do, you’re in, and you’re there, and it’s all you can do to find your way back out.

Kafka once wrote in a letter, “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

Kafka wasn’t talking about romance novels. He was talking about this one. Beasts of No Nation will wake you, and possibly leave you awake and sleepless for the night. •

 

 

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