On the handsome cover jacket of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation it says ‘a novel’ but at just over 140 pages, Beasts is more of a novella. Whatever the classification, the book is Iweala’s debut effort. From the inner jacket, the reader is informed that Iweala, whose parents are Nigerian, was born in 1982 and went to Harvard, where he won numerous writing awards.
Iweala’s impressive pedigree heightened my interest, and my expectations, when I dug in. Beasts of No Nation is that kind of book: you have to dig in, stiffen the upper lip, and brace yourself because the narrative is unrelenting. Set in an unnamed west African nation embroiled in civil war, the story is told by a young boy called Agu. Separated from his mother and sister, Agu witnesses the killing of his father as rebel fighters descend on his village. He is left for dead but is discovered by a rebel outfit, thus beginning a new life as an orphan and a conscript in the same loosely organized army that is responsible for the death of his family and fellow villagers. Thus also begins his life as a beast.
The first thing one notices reading Beasts is the distinctive style in which it is written. Iweala crafts the narrative using the voice of Agu, English that is subtly Africanized, replete with quirks of tense and cadence: “One day one soldier from our group is jumping off tall rock because he is saying he is finding heaven in all of the tree. I am thinking that he was madding in the head.” The use of present tense throughout gives the narration an immediacy that heightens the impact of the language and the urgency of the story. It took me all of about a page to get accustomed to this style, and I never sensed that the writing intruded on the story.
Agu’s voice is not just distinctly African, it is the voice of a young person, and this aspect of the narrative is essential to the success of the story. Agu describes the horrors to which he is subjected in straightforward, unflinching language. His youth, the nakedness of his feelings, give his words added power and the story more credibility. Agu is caught up in things which he does not understand, adult things like war, killing, and depravity, but we never feel that he is part of that world, even though he is forced to participate in it. The writing, while straightforward, is not devoid of lyricism: there is a richness to the descriptions, especially when Iweala tackles the points of the story that are most disturbing. In this passage, Agu is forced to kill for the first time:
It is like the world is moving slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face. The enemy’s body is having deep red cut everywhere and his forehead is looking just crushed so his whole face is not even looking like face because his head is broken everywhere and there is just blood, blood, blood… I am hearing hammer knocking in my head and chest. My nose and mouth is itching. I am seeing all the color everywhere and my belly is feeling empty. I am growing hard between my legs. Is this like falling in love?
The last line of the passage refers to the words of the Commandant, as he is called, the leader of the rebel militia group who gives Agu the fateful choice of kill or be killed. The Commandant says that killing is “like falling in love.” This character becomes the face of the insane brutality of the war, the personification of the forces that drive Agu and the rest of the “soldiers” to commit violent acts. Iweala does not let up for an instant in casting this perverse relationship: in addition to his psychological control, the Commandant exerts real physical control over Agu, not only forcing Agu to kill, but also to submit to his sexual appetites.
It all adds up to a grim existence for Agu, and one to which the reader can quickly become desensitized. It is horrible to read about such a profound disintegration of society, where children must become warriors and killers of the innocent, and not feel a hopelessness knowing that the story has played out in real life many times before, in places like Sierra Leone and the Sudan. But while it is true that the characters and the narrative are drawn in very broad strokes, Iweala is able to save his book from becoming mere social commentary, something you might see on the U.N.’s required reading list but not on the bookshelf of your average book lover. Iweala accomplishes this by focusing the story not on the horrors of war, and the way in which the men and boys involved are made beastly, but on Agu’s inner struggle to maintain a sense of who he is and where he came from. Agu does not give himself over to the beast within; he maintains a sense of his own humanity even in the face of such senseless cruelty.
In this context, Iweala’s decision to begin Beasts of No Nation with a quote from Une Saison en Enfer by Rimbaud is revealing. I admit, I had to brush up on the life of this great, tortured French writer of the 19th century, but I discovered that Rimbaud’s life in some ways paralleled that of Agu: orphaned in wartime, caught up in a rebel movement, but most importantly, a person who in his writing constantly struggled to reconcile his bad acts with an enduring sense of his own humanity (it’s no coincidence that the character in Beasts who ultimately assumes control of the rebel group and leads them away from the field of battle is called “Rambo”). In drawing this parallel, Iweala quietly demands that his story not be confined to Africa or the modern problem of child warriors there. It is his depiction of Agu’s psychological conflict, a theme as old as literature, that imbues Iweala’s work with literary clout beyond its modern subject matter, and gives shape and nuance to what otherwise would be little more than an exploration into the depths of human depravity.