From Boys to Beasts
“It is night. It is day. It is light. It is dark. It is too hot. It is too cold. It is raining. It is too much sunshine. It is too dry. It is too wet. But all the time we are fighting.”
—Beasts of No Nation
Uzodinma Iweala has entered the writing world much like Cinderella must have strode into the prince’s ball. Countless established writers may fill the ballroom, but Iweala refuses to fade against their dazzling colors—instead, Iweala captivates with a fresh radiance of his own. Iweala’s debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, takes a tired topic—the tragedy of war—and expertly fashions it into something new: the tragedy of a childhood never lived.
But to pull off more-than-war, Iweala must first prove that he can write war, a prerequisite satisfied in the novel’s opening pages. The story is set during a West African civil war, and Iweala begins by capturing with glaring intensity the narrator’s confusion as his village comes under attack:
Again and again he is hitting me and each blow from his hand is feeling on my skin like the flat side of machete. I am trying to scream, but he is knocking the air from my chest and then slapping my mouth. I am tasting blood.
Agu, the speaker here and the novel’s narrator, is an instantly compelling character. One can’t help but to ache for a boy whose ingenuousness is no match for war’s brutalities. When Agu’s village is raided at the start of the novel, for instance, he has two choices: to die, or to join the invading guerrilla unit. Confused and afraid, he opts to become a soldier, and this is but the start of countless harrowing confrontations with the horrors of war. Although Agu learns to torture and kill, and he himself is beaten and raped, he somehow never loses the trusting simplicity with which he views the world. Rather, Agu is lost—trapped in a time of cruelty that he cannot comprehend—and all we want to do is to save him.
Agu, whose age is never revealed, occupies a fragile space between boyhood and manhood—an ambiguity that brings the pain of his story to life. After he is forced to kill a man for the first time, Agu’s anguish is strong:
I am vomiting everywhere. I cannot be stopping myself. Commandant is saying it is like falling in love, but I am not knowing what this is meaning. I am feeling hammer knocking in my head and chest ... Is this like falling in love?
Iweala’s presentation of the story through Agu’s voice and description is poignant. The author masterfully renders the pained confusion of a boy too young to know romantic love, yet old enough to know death at its most gruesome. Agu speaks with innocence, a dazed, dismayed kind that hurts more and more with each passing horror. His voice, that of a terrified and disoriented child, is a powerfully effective contrast to the madness of man-against-man conflict.
Iweala again showcases his knack for contrasts in the tension between Agu’s longing for childhood despite the necessity of adulthood. This conflict becomes even more heart-wrenching with Agu’s frequent reminiscences of pre-war days. Before becoming a soldier, Agu was a precocious child, a boy who loved to learn, who dreamed of being a doctor or an engineer. Those were the days when he still had a mother, a father, and a sister—those were the days when life was about family and dreams.
Those were also the days when faith was a simple thing. Agu can remember his mother’s religious devotion and spiritual guidance, but after seeing war in all its cruelty, can he believe in anything anymore?
I am always thinking Confession and Forgiveness and Resurrection, I am not knowing what all this word is meaning. I am remembering sound of people coughing and screaming, and the smell of going to toilet and dead body everywhere. That is the only thing that I am knowing.
But if Agu finds humanity at its lowest point, he also finds solace in a different sort of faith, offered by true friendship. Agu befriends Strika, a youth as adrift as himself, and the two offer each other an unmatchable understanding of pain—the only kindness to be seen as they wander from village to village, fighting and killing, and the only indication to Agu that a brighter life will come. For Agu may have been too young to fall in love, but he found love in another form: he found friendship. He saw the darkest corners of mankind, but he lived—and he loved.