Beasts of No Nation
Beasts of No Nation
Beasts of No Nation is the impressive, powerful debut novel by Uzodinma Iweala. Originally written as Iweala's senior thesis at Harvard, it became a literary sensation almost immediately after its publication in 2005. Iweala won the 2005 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for fiction, the 2005–2006 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and the 2006 Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library.
Written in the first person, Beasts of No Nation is told from the point of view of Agu, a child soldier fighting in an unnamed African country during a time of civil war. While Agu lives through torturous situations—including killing, stealing, and being raped—he remembers, as if in a dream, the days when he lived with his family and went to school. Agu perseveres through his child soldier experience and retains some hope, but he, like the readers, has been profoundly changed.
Inspired by a news magazine article on child soldiers, Iweala conducted in-depth research for his project. He read numerous biographical accounts of child soldiers from Asia and Africa and also traveled back to his family's native Nigeria to meet with people who had fought in that country's civil war in the 1960s. While child soldiers were not used in this conflict, many young men in their late teens, including Iweala's own father, served as guerrilla fighters. It was important to the author to write about what had happened in his native country.
While critics found much to like about Beasts of No Nation, one of the largest points of debate about the book was the voice and language of Agu. Iweala admitted the language, inspired by the way he perceives Nigerians speak English, was filtered through his imagination. Many critics found the language difficult at first, but came to embrace it as an effective means of understanding Agu's tortured psyche. Some critics rejected the language as inauthentic and undermining to Iweala's narrative.
Iweala stated that he wrote Beasts of No Nation to tell a good story, as well as promote awareness about the plight of child soldiers. Many reviewers took up issue with the political angle of the novel. For example, Regis Behe in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review wrote, “In the end, Iweala offers the reader a shaky, fragile redemption that leaves one question unanswered: Where was the rest of the world while Agu was forced to trade his youth for a brutal existence no child should ever have to face?”
Uzodinma Iweala was born in 1982 in Washington, D.C., the son of Ikemba Iweala and his wife, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. His parents were Nigerian and insisted their four children embrace both African and American cultures, and split their time between the United States and Nigeria. Iweala's father was a surgeon. His mother was an economist at the World Bank and served as Nigeria's finance minister for many years. Educated primarily in the United States, Iweala was a gifted student who graduated from the well-respected St. Albans School, then entered Harvard University.
At Harvard, Iweala was a Mellon Mays scholar and majored in English and American literature. He was determined to be a writer, though his early efforts in his first creative writing classes were, he later admitted, awful. Through hard work and dedication, Iweala learned his craft. He decided to write a creative thesis, and with the support of his advisor Jamaica Kincaid, he wrote what became the novel, Beasts of No Nation. Kincaid sent the manuscript to her agent, who helped him land a publishing deal.
After earning his degree with honors from Harvard in 2004, the twenty-two-year-old Iweala's Beasts of No Nation came out in 2005 to much acclaim and several awards. In addition to promoting the book, Iweala also returned to Nigeria, where he worked as a volunteer in refugee camps and did research on HIV and AIDS. After coming back to the United States and settling in New York City, Iweala then worked as a member of Columbia University's Millennium Villages Project and researched poverty solutions at Columbia University's Earth Institute.
Iweala signed a two-book deal with Harper-Collins in 2007. Iweala also applied to medical schools and entered Columbia University's program in the fall of 2007. He plans to write nonfiction and plays. The dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States remains committed to helping people and bettering the world, whether as a doctor, a writer, or both.
Beasts of No Nation opens with a young boy, whose name is later revealed to be Agu, hiding in the corner of a dark room in a dilapidated shack. He is found by another boy, whose name is later revealed to be Strika. Strika beats Agu until he vomits, then drags him outside in the sunshine and leaves him in the mud. Though Agu thinks he might be dead, he soon sees he is surrounded by rebel soldiers.
No one says or does anything until the leader of the group, known as the Commandant, comes over to inspect Agu. The Commandant insults his men for not finding Agu before the small, skinny Strika accomplished the task. The Commandant is particularly abusive toward the Luftenant, his second-in-command.
The Luftenant says that Agu is a spy and suggests they just kill him and leave. The Commandant dismisses this idea and turns his attention to the still-fearful Agu. The Commandant offers him food and water and asks his name. Agu cannot remember it for a few moments because he is afraid he will be killed. He finally gives his name to the Commandant, who then treats him with gentleness.
The Commandant's mood soon turns, however, and he threatens Agu with a knife. Denying he is a spy, Agu tells him that his father told him to run so that he would not be caught and killed by the enemy. He hid until he was found by them. Agu also tells them that he does not know where his father is.
The Commandant asks Agu if he wants to be a soldier. He says, “If you are staying with me, I will be taking care of you and we will be fighting the enemy that is taking your father. Are you hearing me?” Remembering that his father was shot dead, Agu agrees to become a soldier.
Agu is learning how to be a soldier but worries about killing someone. The group sees combat one day when a scout informs the group that a small truck is coming. The rebels construct a blockade, which stops a truck filled with soldiers. The twenty soldiers in the truck get out and beg not to be shot, claiming that they have nothing to offer the rebels. After much confusion, the soldiers follow the Commandant's orders to strip and lie down. Agu follows Strika as they collect the uniforms.
While the Commandant's men search the truck, he orders Agu to kill the head of the group. Agu reacts with fear: “I am thinking, if I am killing killing, then I am going to hell so I am smelling fire and smoke and it is hard to breathe, so I am just standing there crying crying, shaking shaking, looking looking.” Another enemy soldier tries to run away, but is shot and injured and begs for his life.
In the meantime, the rebel soldiers have found guns in the truck. The Commandant further humiliates his prisoner then convinces Agu to kill him. The Commandant puts a machete in Agu's hand and helps him kill the enemy leader. Strika also joins in as they beat the man's head to pieces.
After the man is dead, the rest of the rebels kill the remaining enemy soldiers. Agu is physically sick. He thinks, “Commandant is saying it is like falling in love, but I am not knowing what that is meaning. I am feeling hammer knocking in my head and chest…. Is this like falling in love?”
Agu tries to rationalize what happened by reminding himself that he is a soldier, but there are also voices in his head that tell him that he is a bad boy. As he tries to fight these feelings, he remembers his life with his schoolteacher father and loving, religious mother. Agu's mother often read to him from the Bible. It became his favorite book, and he soon learned to read on his own even before he began attending school.
In a flashback, Agu remembers how going to school became an obsession to him, especially after his father stated he would not allow him to go until he could put his right hand over his head and touch his left ear. When Agu finally accomplished this feat, his father enrolled him in primary school. Though Agu was the smallest, he soon impressed his teacher, Mistress Gloria, and she told him he could be a doctor or engineer some day. Agu met many children (including his best friend Dike), played outside a lot, and went to church every Sunday. Agu cannot forget, however, that he is a soldier now and must act that way.
Agu is sore and tired from the training the Commandant demands of his troops. Despite the pain, Agu finds much to admire about his leader and wants to have a beard like his when he grows up. Agu notes the Commandant constantly insults his men, but wonders, “I am not knowing why he is so angry with us all of the time for not acting like real soldier. We are not even looking like real soldier.” None of the 120 men following the Commandant wear the same uniform, a fact that makes Agu question whether he belongs to a real army. Secretly, Agu still believes that soldiers in real armies are supposed to be dressed the same way.
The Commandant decides they will raid a nearby village that day. Before they leave, Agu tries to learn more about Strika, who has not spoken a word since they met. He draws pictures to communicate and through them Agu learns that Strika's parents have been brutally killed.
The Commandant orders his rebel troops to load the trucks, dividing them between himself and the Luftenant. Agu is upset when he is separated from Strika—Strika is told to go with the Commandant while Agu is instructed to follow the Luftenant. Agu does not respect the Luftenant, who is cowardly in battle. When they arrive near the village that will be raided, Agu does not want to fight, but does not want to appear reluctant because he knows he will be killed if he refuses to fight.
Agu is pleased that Rambo, a tough soldier, is coming with the Luftenant as well. Agu does not carry a gun but is given a knife and takes a drug called “gun juice” like everyone else. After the Commandant prays for guidance from the Lord, the men march across a stream and into a poor village. They find people there, and when battle breaks out, Agu wants to kill.
Agu and Strika find a woman and her young daughter hiding in a house. Agu feels conflict as the woman calls them the Devil, because he does not see himself that way. He remembers a creation myth about the founding of his home village that involved conflict and change. Agu relates the screams from the myth to the screams of the woman. Agu sees the woman as his enemy. After Strika decapitates the girl, Agu kills the woman.
Agu grows confused over time. He also wonders, “How can I know what is happening to me? How can I know?” He closes his eyes and thinks back to life in his village and how young boys would spend a year learning a dance for a ceremony that would make them men. Agu remembers what happens at the yearly ceremony, including the various dances and the food. At the end of his remembrance, he notes that “I am opening my eye and seeing that I am still in the war, and I am thinking, if war is not coming, then I would be man by now.”
Closing his eyes again, Agu remembers what happened shortly before the war reached his village. The schools closed because there was no longer a government. One morning after the schools closed, he went to Dike's house to play. Agu found that the family cook was the only person left in the house. The cook tells Agu that Dike and his mother left the night before to meet Dike's father in a town far away. Agu is upset that Dike did not tell him he was leaving.
Agu then remembers that after the government collapsed children grew thinner, including his own younger sister. People came back to the village; then more new people moved there. One day, Agu's father learned that his school was to be closed and that he was without a job. Another day, his father rushed home and the family immediately hid in the church with the rest of the village's inhabitants. The church's pastor and the chief of the village agreed that everyone should leave and assured the villagers that the United Nations would come soon to help evacuate.
That night, Agu's mother made a big dinner, then packed to leave. During the night, Agu heard his parents having a heated discussion that turned into an argument. His father said he would not leave, and he wanted Agu to stay with him. His mother disagreed with this plan. The next day, however, only Agu's mother and sister leave on the United Nations trucks. It is the last time that Agu sees them.
For the men and boys who stay behind after the females leave, life in the village is lonely. Soon the war comes to them, and as they go out to confront the enemy, Agu's father tells him to run the other way as fast as possible. With gunfire overhead, the men and boys leave their hiding place. Agu listens to his father and runs. Agu sees death as he runs, including his father's: “I am seeing bullet making my father to dance everywhere with his arm raising high to the sky like he is praising God.” Back in the present, Agu still cannot believe what has happened to him.
At the rebels' makeshift camp, Agu feels more at ease as supplies they looted from the village are unloaded from the trucks, and the men sit around a campfire every night. He is also relaxed because there is no killing. Agu still worries about his present situation and his future. When the war is over, he wants to be a doctor or an engineer and help people. He will also go to church and ask forgiveness.
Agu eats the food looted from a nearby village and tries to sleep. He listens to the story of another boy soldier, Griot, and the singing of the boy called Preacher, who sings praises to God. Agu is half-asleep when Strika shines a light in his face and tells him that the Commandant wants to see him.
When Agu reaches the Commandant's shack, he is anxious and wants to stay outside or run away. But he knows if he does not go in or tells him he does not want to fight anymore, he will be accused of being a spy. After Agu enters the tent, the Commandant sexually abuses him.
The situation makes Agu feel pain, both physically and mentally. Agu remembers the first time the Commandant sexually abused him, and how it always feels the same every time it happens. While Agu is still there this time, the Commandant says, “Agu. I am not bad man.” Agu wants to leave, but the Commandant does not let him go right away.
Chapter 7 opens in the morning, as the group of soldiers is tearing down the camp, and packing up their supplies. They burn all the palm and wood that they are not taking with them. The Commandant lets Agu have the honor of lighting the fire.
After they watch the fire for a while, the Commandant tells Agu and Strika they will be riding with him in his truck and acting as his bodyguards. Sitting on the comfortable seat and watching the landscape go by compels Agu to reflect on his life and his present situation.
After days of driving, walking, and fighting with no end, the Commandant takes the soldiers to his town. Outside the community is a sign that reads, “Welcome to the Town of Abundant Resources,” and the Commandant promises that one can find anything here, including food, drink, and women. Agu also relates the Commandant's fantasy-tinged story about how the town came to be.
When they reach the town proper, Agu finds it empty and full of garbage. It is nothing like the Commandant described. After a while, he sees a few women, but they look thin and unhealthy. Most of the buildings are falling apart. The Commandant takes them to an empty house in an open compound. After the rest of his men go to open camp in the compound, the Commandant takes Agu and Strike into the house. There, Agu sees a map of his country and remembers his school again.
The men camp in the compound without light so that the enemy cannot find them. As Agu walks to find Strika, he remembers his mother and school days again. When Agu reaches the steps of the house, he finds the Commandant there. Upon his orders, Agu reluctantly sits next to him, but stays as far away as possible.
When the Luftenant arrives, the Commandant tells Agu that they are going out for the night. Agu is to serve as the Commandant's bodyguard. They go to another compound where there is a makeshift bar. Agu is impressed because there is a television. After they order drinks and bread, everyone but Agu leaves to have sex with prostitutes in another place in the compound. He follows them and listens to what is happening outside of a window.
The situation changes when it becomes clear that something is wrong with the Luftenant. The woman he has been with can barely leave the room because she has been beaten so badly. When the soldiers lay him out, they find the Luftenant has been stabbed in the stomach with his own knife. The Commandant does nothing to the woman but removes the Luftenant to their compound. He dies three days later, and Rambo takes his place in the hierarchy. Agu is afraid, and thinks “I am fearing because I am seeing that the only way not to be fighting is to die. I am not wanting to die.”
The fighting becomes constant as the Commandant's group is bombed by helicopters. To survive they are forced to eat rats, lizards, and insects, and Agu is always hungry. All their trucks have been destroyed, and the Commandant's soldiers are dying. The Commandant has also killed three men he believed to be traitors, including his driver. The men end up living in an underground trench that is intolerably full of rainwater most of the time. Agu wants to leave.
A white mist descends and envelops them. Agu has to go to the Commandant's headquarters, part of the trench covered by a blue cloth. Strika and Agu now carry guns and act as his bodyguards when he is sleeping. Agu is to replace Strika as his guard. Agu believes that the Commandant has gone crazy.
The Commandant's sleep is interrupted by Rambo. Agu tries to stop Rambo from waking up the Commandant, but the Commandant hears the ruckus and wakes up. Rambo informs his leader that he and many of the men are leaving. The Commandant does not believe him, and Agu decides not to protect him when Rambo raises his gun. Rambo kills him and then yells at the men to hurry and leave so they can go home. Agu follows, thinking, “I am tired and hungry and I am wanting to go home.”
As Agu follows Rambo, he wonders why the soldiers waited so long to kill the Commandant. Agu is weary and in pain, but stays alert to what is happening around him. Rambo does not think they should stop, so they walk all night and into the next day. Agu ponders the landscape, how he feels, and his problematic relationship with his gun.
- Beasts of No Nation was released in an unabridged edition on compact disc by Recorded Books, Inc., in 2006. It is narrated by Nyambi Nyambi. This edition has limited availability.
When they reach a village, Strika steps on a piece of glass and falls down. Agu tries to get him to move as they will be left behind if they stop. Despite Agu's encouragement, Strika soon collapses and dies. Agu is upset, thinking “I am trying not to be fearing, but Strika—Strika is my brother and my family and the only person I can be talking to even if he is never talking back until now.”
Agu's world is upside down, and he thinks about running away. When the soldiers scatter in the bush as a truck approaches, Agu and another soldier find a dead body covered in maggots. Agu questions why he is still alive and why he continues to kill. He gets up and decides he no longer needs to obey his gun. Agu leaves it and walks away.
Waking up in a building next to an ocean, Agu declares that his life has changed. He thinks, “I am not having to worrying about anything from war, like bombing or shelling, or dying.” Agu is staying in a place where he has new clothes, can get food daily, and read books. With the help of an American named Amy and a priest named Father Festus, Agu is dealing with what happened to him. While Agu talks about being a soldier, he also tells her that he is always thinking about his future, how he wants to be a doctor or an engineer. He also remembers his past, saying, “I am also having mother once, and she is loving me.”
Agu is the narrator and primary character in Beasts of No Nation. He is a boy of indeterminate age who lives in an unnamed West African nation. As a child, Agu lived with his parents and younger sister in a village. He learned to read before attending the village's primary school and was encouraged by his teacher, Mistress Gloria, to believe he could be a doctor or engineer one day. A war changed his plans, because, as Agu notes, “One day, they are closing school because there is no more Government.”
As the war nears his village, Agu's mother and sister leave on a U.N. truck. Agu's father insists that he and his son stay behind with the other remaining men and boys. When the fighting comes, Agu's father is killed in front of him. Agu runs the other way, as his father instructed, and is hiding when he is found by Strika, a boy soldier under the command of a man known as the Commandant.
Agu joins the band of soldiers controlled by the Commandant. The bulk of the novel describes Agu's experiences in the war, including killing someone for the first time and being sexually abused by the Commandant. He fights in numerous battles, wielding a knife first, then a gun, and he eventually becomes one of the Commandant's bodyguards. He always misses home, however, and the comfort of family that he lost. While Agu tries to understand what is going on around him, he finds solace in his friendship with Strika.
After the Commandant's group loses all its trucks and weapons in a bombing raid, the situation deteriorates. Finally, a soldier named Rambo kills the Commandant. Leaving with Rambo and the remaining men, Agu realizes he can leave and walks away. Agu finds refuge in a rehabilitation camp by the ocean where he receives some of the help he needs to deal with the loss of his innocence and childhood to war.
Agu's father worked as a schoolteacher before the war came to their village. He lost his job shortly after the fighting began. When the war neared his home, he would not allow Agu to be evacuated with his mother and sister on the United Nations trucks. Agu's father believes he has a duty as the eldest son to stay in his home. Agu's father is killed.
Agu's mother is a religious woman who regularly reads the Bible to her young son. Because of her efforts, he learns to read before he begins primary school. Agu loves his mother and is lonely after she and his sister leave on the United Nations truck when the war nears their village. Agu does not know her fate.
Agu's younger sister is also an intelligent child. She leaves with their mother on the United Nations truck after the family's village is attacked. Agu does not know her fate.
Amy is the white woman who works with Agu at some sort of oceanside facility after he leaves Rambo and the war. She encourages him to talk about what happened, and she tears up when he tells his story to her.
The Chief leads Agu's village. He believes that everyone in the village should leave before the war reaches them.
The Cloth Seller is at the center of the story the Commandant tells about the abundant town. The Cloth Seller becomes, metaphorically, the town's market.
The Commandant is the leader of a group of soldiers fighting a war in an unnamed African nation. He strikes fear in the 120 or so men who are fighting with him. He keeps control of his forces through violence and intimidation. This includes the sexual abuse of Agu and Strika. The Commandant specializes in killing and looting.
As time goes on, the Commandant becomes more fanatical as he loses control. When his outfit loses all of its equipment and the soldiers are forced to live in a trench, he uses Agu and Strika as his bodyguards. Agu does not prevent the killing of the Commandant by Rambo, the dissatisfied second-in-command. Though Agu has admired aspects of the Commandant at times, Agu also hates the man for what he has done to him. Agu is ultimately happy that the Commandant is dead and appreciates the freedom that his death brings him.
Dike's family cook informs Agu that his friend has left with his mother. Agu listens to him complain about the situation when Agu goes to find Dike at his now-empty home.
Dike is Agu's best friend in primary school. He is the son of an engineer. After the schools close and the threat of violence approaches the village, Dike's mother takes him away to a far-off town. Dike is not able to tell Agu he is leaving. Agu goes to Dike's house the next morning and is disappointed to learn his friend has gone.
This character is the driver for the Commandant. He is eventually killed by the Commandant when the paranoid leader decides that he is a traitor. The driver was trying to run away because he no longer had a truck to operate.
Father Festus works with Agu in the oceanside facility after Agu leaves Rambo and the war. Father Festus advises Agu to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.
Mistress Gloria was Agu's primary school teacher before the war. She noticed that Agu was intelligent and told him, “If you are studying hard you can be going to the university to be Doctor or Engineer.”
Griot is another boy soldier under the control of the Commandant. As the soldiers are going to sleep at night Griot often tells stories about what happened to him and his family when the war came to his village.
Hope is a scout among the group of soldiers led by the Commandant.
The Luftenant is the Commandant's second-in-command when Agu becomes one of the soldiers. He is not a particularly effective soldier and does not seem to be highly regarded
by the Commandant. Agu does not respect him; he thinks the Luftenant is a coward in battle. The Luftenant was a shoe salesman before the war and was not educated. He dies when he is stabbed by a prostitute after he beats her. The Luftenant is replaced by Rambo as second-in-command.
The Madam oversees the brothel used by the Commandant and his men when they go to the so-called abundant town. One of these prostitutes stabs the abusive Luftenant, who eventually dies of his wounds.
The Pastor is in charge of the church in Agu's village. He encourages people to leave when the war nears.
Preacher is another boy soldier who always sings about God and has a Bible that he uses as a pillow.
Rambo is one of the soldiers in the Commandant's command. Agu admires him, noting “this Rambo is very tough, and also mean, but he is also very smart. I am liking the way his eye is so sharp that they are seeing everything each time we are in battle.” After the Luftenant is murdered, Rambo replaces him as the Commandant's second-in-command. When the group is reduced to living in an underground trench without supplies, Rambo takes action and kills the Commandant. He takes charge of the remaining men as they walk away and hide from battles. Agu eventually leaves Rambo's group without incident and finds his own freedom.
Strika is the mute boy soldier who finds Agu and eventually becomes his best friend. Strika does not speak but communicates by writing and drawing in the dirt. Through a drawing, Agu learns that Strika's parents were killed in a horrific fashion and that he has not spoken since their deaths.
When Strika first finds Agu hiding, he beats him with the side of a machete and brings him to the attention of the Commandant. The pair soon become comrades and watch out and care for each other amidst the violent turmoil. Like Agu, Strika is sexually abused by the Commandant and later serves as his bodyguard.
This friendship with Strika is important to Agu. He is devastated when Strika steps on a piece of glass and dies while following Rambo after he kills the Commandant. However, Strika's death frees Agu to leave Rambo and the others so that he can find his own path.
War and its effects on its combatants are the primary themes of Beasts of No Nation. Save for Agu's flashbacks to his life with his family and friends before the war, the bulk of the text describes his experiences as a young child soldier forced to serve a group of rebels fighting in a civil war. The combat is guerrilla style, and Agu participates fully in the action.
Though only about nine to twelve years old, Agu goes through many of the experiences adult soldiers do. Much of his time is spent going through mundane activities, such as loading and unloading trucks, traveling, guard duty, eating (when there is food), and sleeping, while knowing conflict is always imminent. Every routine action has an underlying stress, because an enemy could attack any time.
The war in which Agu is fighting also takes him to dark places. Despite his age, he is taught how to kill as a regular adult soldier. Agu is distraught the first time the Commandant forces him to take someone's life. In the book's second chapter, the Commandant's group ambushes another group of soldiers. Though Agu initially resists, the Commandant “is taking my hand and bringing it down so hard on top of the enemy's head and I am feeling like electricity is running through my whole body.” While Agu knifes the man to death in a frenzy, the experience leaves him drained.
Throughout the book, the reasons why the rebels are fighting and what they are fighting for remain unclear. As a child Agu is not capable of understanding or explaining the large political context of the war—his experiences are limited to the day-to-day struggle to survive. This ambiguity is amplified by the fact that Iweala does not specify a certain country or time period as the context of his novel. The conflict is reduced to small skirmishes such as attacks on trucks and the raiding of small villages. The bigger picture is only hinted at when Agu sees a map of his country in the compound where the rebels make camp.
Loss of Self and Dehumanization
Beasts of No Nation goes to great length to demonstrate the loss of selfhood suffered by soldiers. Because Agu is a child, he experiences a particularly deep sense of dehumanization as a member of the rebel army. He quickly learns that being a soldier in a war is nothing like what is depicted on the big screen. Agu says:
I am knowing now that to be a soldier is only to be weak and not strong…and also to have people making you do thing that you are not wanting to do and not to be doing whatever you are wanting which is what they do in movie. But I am only knowing this because I am soldier now.
Even though Agu does not like what he has to do as a soldier, he knows that he has to be subservient to the demands of the Commandant and the group of rebels to which he has been forcefully attached. All his actions are determined by the need of the collective, from the killing to the marching to the time he sleeps and eats. If Agu or any of the other soldiers fail to meet these demands, they are accused of being a spy and dealt with accordingly. It is a choice between losing self and being beaten or dying.
For Agu and his fellow boy-soldier Strika, this process of dehumanization goes a step further. The Commandant sexually abuses both of them on a regular basis. Agu says that the Commandant rationalizes his actions: “But each time he is doing this to me, he is telling me, it is what commanding officer is supposed to be doing to his troop. Good soldier is following order anyway and it is order for you to let me touch you like this.” Agu does what he must to survive but is aware that he has little control over himself in the process.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Uzodinma Iweala's title was inspired by the song “Beasts of No Nation,” by Fela Kuti. Find a copy of this song, play it for the class, and organize a discussion about how the song relates to the themes and background of the novel.
- Research oral storytelling traditions of Africa, which Iweala has said were influential in the development of the language and voice of Beasts of No Nation. Create an oral presentation in which you relate your findings to the way in which the novel was written. Be sure to discuss the stories told by Griot and the Commandant. In what manner are these stories told? What do they say both about the storyteller and the audience?
- Find studies about the psychological effects of serving as child soldiers on those involved. Write a report in which you analyze how Iweala depicts Agu's struggles in terms of your findings and compare it to stories of other former child soldiers.
- Watch the feature film Blood Diamond (2006), which investigates the child soldier phenomenon in Africa. Write a paper in which you compare and contrast the experiences of Agu in the novel to what is depicted in the film. How are children and adults in these narratives represented? What messages regarding violence and warfare do these stories deliver?
- Research the various international measures taken to combat the use of child soldiers, such as the United Nations protocols. With a partner, stage a debate over the effectiveness of such efforts.
While Beasts of No Nation concerns itself primarily with Agu's experiences as a child soldier, the last chapter offers a sense of hope and redemption. After Rambo kills the Commandant and the group of rebel soldiers marches away on their own, Agu comes to realize that he does not have to stay with them. In the last pages of the book, he is allowed to come to terms with what happened to him at a recovery facility. There, he has his own room, new clothes, as much food as he can eat, medical attention, and counseling sessions with a woman named Amy and a priest named Father Festus. Physically and mentally stronger, Agu walks in the sand and makes plans for his future—a future he now knows is within his grasp. He thinks, “I am wanting to be happy in this life because of everything I am seeing. I am just wanting to be happy.”
One of the most distinctive elements of Beasts of No Nation is the voice and language of Agu. Because the novel is written from a first person point of view, every word is filtered through Agu and his experiences. Though written in English, correct grammar is not always incorporated and words are often mismatched or missing from sentences. For example, Iweala writes, “It is taking Luftenant three whole day to be dying.” Also, nearly all the text is written in present tense, adding an immediacy to Agu's experiences.
Iweala stated that his choice of voice and language for Agu was deliberate and specific. He told Heather V. Eng of the Boston Herald, “It is how, in my mind,…how people in the environment I was around in Nigeria speak.” The result is a kind of pidgin English or Nigerian English patois (regional dialect) that allows the reader to understand that these events are happening in another part of the world, yet still can be related to despite the slightly different use of the English language.
Stream of Consciousness
Another source of energy in Beasts of No Nation is the stream of conscious style in which the novel is written. In this style, the thoughts of the character are presented as they develop—seemingly without editing—and feel almost random in the way they flow. The character's mental processes are highlighted when a story is written as stream of consciousness.
From the first page of Beasts of No Nation, Agu describes what is happening to him in this way. The first paragraph of the novel reads in part:
It is starting like this. I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin, and then my head is just starting to tingle right between my eye, and then I am wanting to sneeze because my nose is itching, and then air is just blowing into my ear and I am hearing so many thing….
Thus, the reader experiences what Agu thinks and does and gains insight into his character and his world.
Iweala uses flashbacks in Beasts of No Nation to show what Agu's life was like before war broke out. A flashback occurs when a scene in the book shifts to actions and situations that happened before the beginning of the story. For example, the first few chapters of the novel consists of Agu's experiences as he is forced to join the Commandant's band of rebel soldiers. As he struggles to understand what is happening to him, he thinks back to what happened before the war reached his village. In the third chapter, Agu describes his life with his mother and father, how he learned to read from the Bible, his education, and what happened on Sundays. At the end of the chapter, Agu states that such memories—that is, his flashback—are important. Iweala writes, “And I am remembering to myself that I am doing all of this thing before I am solider and it is making me to feel better.” Iweala incorporates flashbacks to similar ends at several points in the novel to show what Agu has lost and help the character retain his sense of humanity.
In Beasts of No Nation, there is a subtle allusion that adds depth to the text. An allusion is a reference to a commonly known character, person, event, or concept. Allusions usually are used to help an idea become better understood. In Beasts of No Nation, Agu says that he has watched soldiers fighting in war movies and that his experiences are vastly different than what he saw on the big screen. Iweala names one soldier in the Commandant's group after a war movie hero: Rambo. Agu admires Rambo for his no-nonsense, fearless fighting style. Rambo eventually replaces the Luftenant as second-in-command after the Luftenant dies. In the end, it is Rambo who kills the Commandant and leads the remaining soldiers away from their bereft situation. The novel's Rambo has many qualities associated with the movie hero played by Sylvester Stallone and is an allusion to his character.
Efforts to Protect Children from Being Coerced into Warfare
While Beasts of No Nation is set in an unnamed African country at an unnamed time, Iweala touched on an international issue that received much attention in the early 2000s: the use and abuse of child soldiers in wars. Though many people around the world were appalled that young children were being used as soldiers in conflicts primarily in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East, the concept was not new. Studies have shown that children make good soldiers because they generally readily accept that violence is a solution to a problem, they can be easily dominated, they are loyal, and they are, by nature, often willing to join and take risks.
The use of children as soldiers has a long history. The Children's Crusade of 1212 was launched by French and German children, all reportedly younger than twelve, as they planned to fight to convert Muslims to Christianity. While their planned march to Jerusalem ultimately failed, it created an indelible legend. When Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, children of French soldiers were trained by the government and went with their fathers into combat. The British Navy used cabin boys and cadets under the age of fifteen for several centuries. In the United States Civil War, many young male children served as drummer boys for the armies of both the North and the South.
By the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for children to serve willingly with the military or with rebel forces of various countries. Poverty compelled some children to join to improve their life and gain a steady income. There was also often ideological motivation for children to join in countries where there were uprisings against oppressors or invaders. For example, thirteen-year-old twins Johnny and Luther Htoo led their God's Army, a band of Karen rebels, in combat against the Myanmar government from 1999 to 2001. Among their accomplishments was pulling off a successful counterattack against government forces.
Beasts of No Nation highlights how children increasingly became participants in twentieth-century conflicts. Primarily in developing countries or those regions that were war-prone, children were forced to serve in both governmental and rebel forces in numerous places. During the 1980s, for example, Iran drafted thousands of boys as young as twelve to serve in their army during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein also regularly recruited children for the Iraqi army beginning in the mid- 1990s. While fighting the government in Uganda, a group called the Lord's Liberation Army abducted at least eight thousand children to serve as soldiers, laborers, and sex slaves. Similarly, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka used primarily young girls as their child soldiers, subjecting them to both violence and sexual abuse.
The effect of these experiences on children can be profound. In addition to the psychological effects of the situation, including the killing, violence, constant fear, and sexual abuse, the children are treated brutally, often malnourished, given drugs, and exposed to physical labors (such as marching and digging) that their young bodies cannot fully handle. Depending on the group, child soldiers who cannot keep up or refuse to comply with orders are killed. Those children who survive often internalize the brutality and do not respect authority, be it political or moral. Some, however, are resilient and, with help, can adapt to new lives.
By the late twentieth century, the plight of child soldiers began gaining international attention. Numerous children's rights activists and humanitarian groups spoke out against the use of child soldiers. In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child established the minimum age for military service at fifteen. By the late 1990s, the United Nations was, through its Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, encouraging governments to raise the age to eighteen.
These measures, however, did little to stem the tide, and the use of child soldiers continued to increase into the early twenty-first century. One reason for the increase was the greater availability of light assault weapons, which could be carried by children. By 2003, it was believed that there were three hundred thousand children under the age of eighteen serving as soldiers. They were fighting in about three-quarters of the conflicts going on in the world, with a significant concentration in Africa. The wars in Africa—in, for example, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda—have changed as they are no longer wars against colonial oppression but warlord-led criminal drives whose only goals are to plunder and seize absolute power. Political gain is often not part of their agenda, so using child soldiers for material gain is an easy solution.
As a result of such conflicts, two million child soldiers were killed and six million injured or disabled between 1995 and 2005. More protocols aimed to end the combat, including the Paris Principles, which were signed by multiple nations in February 2007. The signees pledged not to use children to wage war and were supported in this effort by the United Nations. To further curtail the use of child soldiers, U.S. senators introduced the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2007. To end the use of child soldiers, foreign governments were asked to disarm and rehabilitate any child soldiers over a two-year period or lose any U.S. aid they received. It was unclear if the bill would become law.
From its initial publication, Beasts of No Nation was generally praised by critics for its power and insight into the plight of child soldiers. As The Independent's Nicholas Tucker wrote, “This book about children that is no sense a children's book deserves to be read, particularly by those with strong stomachs and the inclination to encounter some of the more horrific lows that exist in the world today.”
While most critics agreed that the voice Iweala gave to Agu was compelling, they were somewhat divided over the author's choice of language in the text. Iweala wrote the book in an admittedly made-up type of Nigerian pidgin or patois English, what he thought he heard when listening to people in Nigeria speak. Publishers Weekly praised “the extraordinarily original voice with which this tale is told,” calling it “impressionistic” and praising “Iweala's electrifying prose.”
Some critics found that Iweala's language choice undermined his otherwise powerful concept and text. John Sutherland of London's Financial Times commented “it grates alienatingly on the ear.” Seth Taylor of the San Diego Union-Tribune called Iweala's language choice “the book's only significant flaw” and further noted, “it's a tactic that quickly begins to feel like a gimmick.”
Reviewers responded more positively to Iweala's decision to use the present tense. In the Library Journal, Misha Stone noted that “The terror that Agu witnesses and engages in is told in his simple, declarative voice that makes the violence all the more senseless and immediate.”
For some critics, like Noah Deutsch of The Washington Times, Iweala's literary choices worked. Deutsch commented, “Agu's voice is not just distinctly African, it is the voice of a young person who describes the horrors to which he is subjected in straightforward, unflinching language. His youth, the nakedness of his feelings, give his words power and at the same time gives more credibility to the story.”
Monsalve Federico, writing in the Auckland, New Zealand Sunday Star-Times, also appreciated the honesty of Iweala's novel. After noting the book “is written in a childlike, jarring dialect,” Federico stated “One can see and smell the sweaty, oily faces, the humidity of the jungle, the bitter aftertaste of kerosene, wood smoke and gunpowder.”
Thus, critics like Ali Smith in London's Guardian, concluded of Beasts of No Nation, “Its brutality is unendurable, and at the same time the life of the voice of it provides all the moral analysis there is. As terrifying as this pure, ruined child-voice is, Iweala suggests, a silence here would be much more terrifying.”
Petrusso is a freelance writer and editor with degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of Texas. In this essay, Petrusso analyzes how Uzodinma Iweala emphasizes ritual as he explores the harsh transition to manhood Agu is forced to undergo as a child soldier.
Throughout Beasts of No Nation, Uzodinma Iweala intersperses primary protagonist Agu's memories of his life before he was forced to become a child soldier fighting in a nameless, seemingly pointless, war. One flashback transports readers to the ceremony his village held to celebrate the transition of boyhood to manhood for those boys of the right age. At the end of that flashback, Agu states, “I am thinking, if war is not coming, then I would be man by now.” Yet his service as a child soldier has unintentionally thrust him into manhood. Agu is forced to do what an adult soldier does, including kill, without a celebratory ritual to define becoming a man. This transformation provides an interesting undercurrent to the novel's primary focus on what being a child soldier does to one boy's psyche.
The experiences Agu has as a child soldier are often mind-numbing to the boy. He says, “Time is passing. Time is not passing. Day is changing to night. Night is changing to day. How can I know what is happening?” One of the ways he copes with what is happening to him is to remember the life he had with his family before the war came to his village. Agu's memory of the coming-of-age ceremony is particularly revealing. He remembers,
We are dancing too because it is how we are learning to become men. Young person is having to spend one whole year learning all the dance that is turning you to man, and if you are not learning, then nobody is thinking you are man.
Agu goes on to relate what happens when the dancers participating in the ceremony become men. He goes into detail about that day, including how the crowd is divided, what the dancers do, and the food everyone eats. Agu emphasizes how the whole village is part of the intense ritual, and is enraptured as he describes the Dance of the Warrior, the Dance of the Goddess, and his favorite, the Dance of the Ox and Leopard. At the end of the rite, everyone moves to the river, where the dancers dance in the river. The top boy gets the honor of cutting an ox's neck with a machete and rubbing its blood on his body. The other boys do the same, take off the masks they have worn throughout the ceremony, and officially become men.
While this is but one memory Agu shares about his past, it reveals how important becoming a man is to Agu. He knows that he is missing this ceremony and will probably never have it as his life as a soldier seems never-ending and offers little hope for survival. Agu does undergo several rituals, however, which transition him to the quasi-adulthood he has as a boy soldier. Though these situations are hardly ceremonial, they underscore how being a child soldier has taken away Agu's childhood, innocence, and more appropriate transition to adulthood.
The first ritual which transitions Agu into the pseudo-manhood of a child soldier occurs in the novel's second chapter. He knows he has to kill someone and has listened to advice from the Commandant, Luftenant, and other men, but still fears it. He reports that “They are all saying, stop worrying. Stop worrying. Soon it will be your turn and then you will know what it is feeling like to be killing somebody.” When the rebel group stops and loots a truck with other soldiers on it, Agu finally gets his chance.
Though Agu cries, shakes, and tries to resist the Commandant's order to kill one of the enemy men, the Commandant forces him to go through with the act. Agu explains, “Kill him, Commandant is saying in my ear and lifting my hand high with the machete. Kill him oh.” The Commandant puts his hand over Agu's and compels him to make the first blow. After the man's head is split open, Agu gives in and strikes the man repeatedly in the head and upper body. Iweala links the experience to the village ritual as Agu reports “I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face.”
After the soldier is dead, Agu is physically sick. He still sees himself as a boy, though he knows that is changing. Beasts of No Nation's third chapter begins with Agu rationalizing what happens. He states,
I am not bad boy. I am not bad boy. I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing. I am telling this to myself because soldier is supposed to be killing, killing, killing. So if I am killing, then I am only doing what is right.
This aspect of Agu's transformation is soon complete. By the next chapter, he has grown comfortable with killing. Though he does not want to kill early in the chapter, by midway Agu reports,
I am starting to think: Yes it is good to fight…. I am liking to see people running from me and people screaming for me when I am killing them and taking their blood. I am liking to kill.
While the people Agu encounters from this point forward still see him as a boy, he sees himself this way less and less, except in flashbacks to his prewar life.
Another ritual that pushes Agu further away from boyhood to the type of manhood that a child soldier is compelled to have is related to sex and the body. For the rebel soldiers, humiliating the enemy with their manhood is commonplace. The Commandant relieves himself on the man that he forces Agu to kill in the second chapter. After the murder is over, Agu tells of one of his reactions: “I am growing hard between my legs. Is this like falling in love?” A few chapters later, Agu's friend Strika uses his body to intimidate a woman and daughter that they have found hiding. Agu reports, “Strika is pulling down his short and showing that he is man to this woman while I am holding one leg and another soldier is holding the other.”
The sexual abuse Agu—as well as Strika and perhaps other child soldiers under the Commandant's command—endures forces the transition from child to manhood to an extreme level. Focusing on Agu's experiences, Iweala spends nearly a whole chapter describing how the Commandant regularly abuses his boy soldiers. When the Commandant tells Strika to send Agu to the Commandant's tent, Agu is reluctant. He explains, “Each time I am going to Commandant, I am feeling that I should not go in because I am knowing what he is wanting to do to me.” Agu goes in and submits because he knows he has no choice in the matter; if he refuses the Commandant he puts his life in danger.
Iweala's descriptions of this abusive situation incorporate issues of boyhood and manhood. When Agu relates the details of the first time the Commandant raped him, he reports that he was confused by what happened. Agu claimed that had he been a “brave boy,” he might have killed himself after the event. During the primary incident of abuse that Iweala describes, Agu no longer sees himself as a boy. Agu says that after the Commandant is done, “he is rubbing my head like I am still little boy.” Having lost his innocence, however, Agu cannot view himself in the same way.
The Commandant also emphasizes that a penis defines manhood by calling it his soldier. Agu also uses this term to describe his own sexual organ throughout the text as he grows in his identity as a soldier and quasi-adult. This thought process is most evident when he accompanies some of the soldiers to a bar/house of prostitution towards the end of the book. Agu describes becoming aroused by a woman who works at the establishment, explaining “I am looking at her breast also and my soldier is becoming to stand to tenshun which is making me to feel good and it is not making me to feel good.” While Agu goes on to try and order the woman around, he knows that he really is not a man and the people around him do not treat him as such.
Yet Agu has to deal with sexual situations. He masturbates outside of the window of a room where some of the men are having sex with local prostitutes. It feels good to him, though he does not fully grasp why. Near the end of the novel, Agu admits that he rapes and he does not understand it. He explains, “If they are ordering me KILL, I am killing…ENTER WOMAN, I am entering woman and not even saying anything even if I am not liking it.” He is merely following orders as the quasi-adult he has become, not making an adult decision.
The final shift that defines Agu's transition from boy to manhood lies in the weapons he uses. When he is first forced to join the guerrilla group, he uses a knife or machete on his victims. Agu explains,
There is not enough gun for each person to be having one and so I am not having gun. Anyway, Commandant is saying that I am too small to be carrying gun because small person is not holding gun well well and just bouncing up and down when they are shooting.
After the soldiers have lost everything and are barely subsisting in an underground trench, Agu reveals that he and Strika have been given a gun. The increasingly paranoid Commandant uses the child soldiers as his bodyguards because he does not trust his other men. Agu and Strika share a “gun that is so heavy in his [ Strika's] hand it is pulling the right side of his body to the ground.” When Rambo insists on confronting the Commandant, Agu almost puts his finger on his trigger to protect the Commandant from what is coming. Instead, Agu allows Rambo to kill the Commandant. Agu is put into a very adult situation and makes an adult decision.
When Agu sticks with Rambo and what is left of the rebel outfit, he continues to carry the gun, a symbol of his quasi-adulthood. But Agu does not desire to be in this situation anymore. As he walks, sweaty and hungry, he realizes that the gun and being a soldier are not what he wants. Agu thinks,
when this war is starting, I am wanting gun because I can be using it to protect myself. At this time, gun is belonging to me and it is going wherever I am carrying it, but now it is just riding on my back like it is king and I am servant.
As circumstances grow more desperate among the wandering band of rebels, Agu realizes that he can be free of the gun and being a soldier. After he witnesses another soldier stealing a shirt off a body covered in maggots, Agu decides that “I am looking at my gun and I am saying to it, I am not needing you anymore.” He walks down the road away from the gun and the other men, “feeling it [his shoulder] jubilating because it is not having to be obeying gun anymore.”
Though physically still a boy, Agu has become a type of man because of his experiences. The rituals of war have indoctrinated him into manhood. There was no dancing, no proud parents, or a village to watch him dance as he would have liked. In the book's last, hopeful chapter, Agu describes receiving support at a rescue station near the ocean. He realizes again that he is a boy, but during his counseling sessions with a white woman named Amy, acknowledges that he has been profoundly changed. Agu states, “I am thinking I am like old man and she is like small girl because I am fighting in war and she is not even knowing what war is.”
Source: A. Petrusso, Critical Essay on Beasts of No Nation, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following essay, Marchand praises the book for its use of language and descriptions of physical details, while emphasizing how the author effectively demonstrates the effect of war on the young soldiers.
One of the horrors bequeathed to the 21st century by the previous century is the phenomenon of the child soldier. Boys armed with automatic rifles have been particularly prominent in Africa, the setting of Beasts of No Nation, a first novel by a young Nigerian-raised writer named Uzodinma Iweala, a Harvard grad who now lives in both Washington and Lagos.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Johnny Mad Dog: A Novel (2005), written by Emmanuel Dongala and translated by Maria Louise Archer, shows two sides of an ethnic war in Africa. Using the viewpoints of two teens on opposite sides of the conflict, Dongala offers a complex narrative about the effects of war on Africa's children.
- Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007) offers the author's story of being a thirteen-year-old child soldier in Sierra Leone's government army during the civil war of the 1990s. Though Beah states he was initially upset to be turned over by his commander for rehabilitation, the author also describes how he was able to reenter civilian life.
- Child Soldier: Fighting for My Life (2005), written by China Keitetsi, is an autobiography of a female child soldier who was kidnapped at the age of eight by rebel forces in Uganda. Like Agu in Beasts of No Nation, she was forced to fight and kill and was raped. After bearing two children, she left Uganda for Europe at the age of eighteen.
- Ahmadou Kouroum's Allah Is Not Obliged (2007) is a novel about a child soldier written by an author and activist from the Ivory Coast. The book is centered on a third-grade dropout named Birahima, who is pressed into soldiering when sent to Liberia to live with an aunt after his mother's death. Birahima then spends three years with a violent band of rebels.
- Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (1995), by Ken Saro Wiwa, is a novel about a soldier in an unnamed African country who is drawn into war but is unsure what he is fighting for. Like Iweala, Wiwa is a native of Nigeria and uses corrupted English to make his point.
The book's title is apt. The soldiers depicted in the novel, adult and child, have no real country. They are an anarchic community, with no ties except to their leader, the “Commandant.” The longer they remain in this community, the more they are stripped of their humanity and sink to the level of wounded and dangerous animals.
Iweala doesn't shy away from the challenge of providing an intimate look at these men and boys. His novel is narrated in the first person by Agu, a boy on the cusp of puberty, born to a schoolteacher and his wife in a village in an unnamed West African nation.
‘It is starting like this,’ the voice begins. ‘I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin, and then my head is just starting to tingle right between my eye, and then I am wanting to sneeze because my nose is itching, and then air is just blowing into my ear and I am hearing so many things…’
This opening is characteristic of the rest of the novel in its concentration on basic physical details. There's a lot of focus on sweat in particular. There are also numerous metaphors involving insects—“the rain is starting to fall onto everything and sticking to it like million tiny insect”—and those metaphors not using insects as a means of comparison are equally visceral in their impact. At one point, for example, Agu describes the sound of bullets and the scrape of machetes as a “goat chewing on metal.”
And of course the idiom is peculiar to Western ears—the constant use of the present tense participle, the lack of articles, the confusion between singular and plural, the transformation of adjectives into participles, and so on—so that the reader frequently encounters such phrases as “making you to sadding very much in your heart.”
Agu also repeats words for emphasis—saying “tall tall” instead of “very tall,” for example—and employing strange onomatopoetic words in all capital letters, such as KPWOM KWUDA KPWAMA KPWISHA KWANG GBEWM SHHKA, to describe everything from drum beats to artillery shelling to the striking of a match. The worst that can be said of such an idiom is that it occasionally sounds like Pidgin English.
Those readers unfamiliar with West African use of English can only assume that Iweala's prose is a faithful recreation of such usage. Because it is so fractured, it does make it easier to believe that the speaker is a child. Moreover, the pace of narrative is so brisk that the reader never gets bogged down in the language.
The sequence of events quickly unfolds: Agu is found hiding by the band of soldiers led by the “Commandant.” He is offered the chance of joining them, which he accepts because the alternative is clear. He participates in the killing of helpless civilians. “Don't think,” a fellow solder tells him. “Just let it happen.” To help Agu stop thinking, other soldiers feed him a drug called “gun juice.”
This grim narrative is interrupted by Agu's happy memories of his previous life—his enjoyment of books and school, his church activities, his witnessing of village ceremonials recalling a pre-Christian cult of river goddesses and spirits.
These last memories of village life, almost idyllic in the telling, are crucial. They don't explain why a country like this breaks apart at the seams, but they do suggest elements of culture that can take vicious forms when perverted.
There is the “Dance of the Warrior,” for example, in which men pretend to fight each other with wooden machetes. There is the initiation ceremony of a boy who assumes manhood in the act of hacking an ox to death with a real machete and rubbing the blood over his body.
Finally there is the tradition, tolerated or encouraged by local culture, of the big man. In wartime the Commandant fills that post, with brutal results. Not only does he lead the soldiers in killing, he sodomizes Agu. But Agu admits, at least in the beginning, that he is attracted to the aura of power attached to this father figure. “I am liking his mustaches and his big black beard, and I am liking how he is squeezing his chin and all of its hairs in his fist when he is thinking very hard.” Agu considers: “I am wanting beard so I can be doing that.”
It may be fitting that the contrast between idyllic past and blood-soaked present is most striking when the soldiers visit the Commandant's native village. “Before we are coming here, Commandant is telling me how his town is fine past any other town, that his place is like paradise they are always talking about in Bible,” Agu reports. And indeed the village does seem like paradise, with its shining river and brilliantly coloured roof tops.
But then the Commandant tells Agu a local folk tale about a mythological figure called the Cloth Seller, and how the Cloth Seller's greed and selfishness results in his being turned into “the market.” The moral of the story, according to Agu: “You can never be trusting anybody or anything in this town. It is the market. It is having everything, but nothing is ever really how it is looking.”
The seeds of dehumanization are never far distant, no matter how beautiful the garden.
From the start, the reader has been reminded of what war has taken away from the lives of people. For Agu and his comrades, war also begins to take away sleep and the last shreds of human dignity. The soldiers defecate everywhere, even in clear streams, and survive by eating lizards and insects. In the novel's most haunting sentence, Agu reflects, “I am so hungry that I am wanting to die, but if I am dying, then I will be dead.”
In the end, Agu is rescued by aid workers. Trying to recover his health and his spirit, he wonders if he can ever get back into the grace of God. Iweala avoids answering the question of whether such grace exists. Listening to a priest talk about forgiveness, Agu reflects, “Even if I am not understanding all the thing he is saying, I am still listening because he is saying that God is still alive in this place. I do not know if I am believing him, but I am liking to hear it.”
Dostoevsky once wrote that if a child has at least one happy memory, then he or she will likely remain sane. This seems to be the conclusion of Iweala's brief, memorable tale, as well. I
am a killer, Agu reflects in the final sentence of the novel, but I am something else: “I am also having mother once, and she is loving me.”
That memory is sufficient for hope to stay alive.
Source: Philip Marchand, “The worst killers had mothers once,” in Toronto Star, December 4, 2005, p. D07.
In the following review, Hopkins notes the book is difficult in its subject matter but is a satisfying, informative narrative.
In telling his tale of a boy soldier caught up in the wickedness of war, Uzodinma Iweala peppers his rich dialogue with the cartoon crudity familiar to all of us who devoured DC and Marvel as children. In using the comic-language “KPAWA! He is hitting me” or “I am bring the machete up and down hearing KPWUDA…” he reinforces not only the innocence of nine-year-old Agu but the monstrosity of what he is doing.
The whole narrative is rich and reverberating: it's paired back to the bone, written as witnessed through the eyes of the central character and told in a mixture of patois, biblical imagery, childish thinking and military slang. All of which makes it authentic, and disturbing.
Iweala is 23, a Harvard graduate and has worked with Nigerian child soldiers in rehabilitation. He has drawn on this and memories of his own family's suffering in the Nigerian civil war. The story is simple, the story of the tens of thousands of child soldiers caught up in the world's wars.
“One day they are closing school because there is no more government,” Agu tells us. He is dragged out of a village hut, beaten unconscious by another, smaller boy, then given the choice between life and death by the renegade leader, the Commandant. He chooses life. “What else can I be doing? They are all saying, stop worrying. Stop worrying. Soon it will be your own turn and then you will know what it is feeling like to be killing somebody.”
Agu, was a good schoolboy who lived for his books. His father was a teacher with an eye to African tradition, his mother loved a Christian God. “But these things are before the war and I am only remembering them like dream.” Agu becomes a rapist and a killer. It is the only way he can survive, hoping to find his displaced sisters and mother…“I am also having mother once, and she is loving me”.
He and his captors raid villages and kill as many people as they can, high on hunger and gun juice, which turns them all into the beasts of no nation and leads to the kind of dripping bloodshed that means “I am not knowing what is farmer and what is goat”.
Most evenings after battle Agu is sodomised by the Commandant—sex and death, no surprise, become entangled in the emerging emotions of this young boy. The renegades relentlessly move on, to find one more village to torch or loot.
Finally, the band disintegrates, with the Commandant shot by his own troops and Agu finishing at a refugee camp to start the painful process of washing his bloodied hands. He knows he has done terrible things, and is just starting to admit to them when the novel ends.
This is the stuff of apocalypse: carefully controlled images of slaughter and starvation and sexual degradation recur throughout. It asks some simple questions of its protagonist. “What am I supposed to be doing?” “How can I know what is happening to me?”
If there is tragedy and pathos, there is irony: Agu ponders what it was, in the past, to dance the warrior dance that meant you were a man in your village's eyes, and what it is now to be too small to carry a gun without the weight of it pulling you to one side—so small that they give you a knife instead.
This compelling debut by a young writer of obvious talent is perturbing, painful and powerful. The blood of battle, the salt of sweat and fetid fear, the rattle of death saturate the senses. It's disturbing to read but difficult to put down. In the end Iweala's story stays with you for its starkly simple, but urgent, telling of a searingly sad story.
Source: Paul Hopkins, “Children in the Heart of Darkness,” in Irish Independent, September 10, 2005, pp. 1–3.
Behe, Regis, “Childhood Traded for Violence,” in Pittsburgh Tribune Review, December 4, 2005.
Deutsch, Noah, “The Evil Civil War Can Do to Men,” in The Washington Times, February 19, 2006, p. B08.
Eng, Heather V., “Young Guns; Harvard Student Reveals Plight of Child Soldiers in Powerful Debut Novel,” in The Boston Herald, November 19, 2005, p. O27.
Federico, Monsalve, “Gut-wrenching Glimpse into the Life of a Child Soldier,” in The Sunday Star-Times (Auckland, New Zealand), August 21, 2005, p. 5.
Iweala, Uzodinma, Beasts of No Nation, HarperCollins, 2005.
Review of Beasts of No Nation, in Publishers Weekly, August 29, 2005, p. 29.
Smith, Ali, “The Lost Boys,” in The Guardian (London, England), September 3, 2005, p. 22.
Stone, Misha, Review of Beasts of No Nation, in Library Journal Reviews, September 1, 2005, p. 131.
Sutherland, John, “The Sound of Somewhere Else,” in Financial Times (London, England), October 1, 2005, p. 26.
Taylor, Seth, “The War of Children,” in San Diego Union-Tribune Books, November 13, 2005, p. 8.
Tucker, Nicholas, “The Cry of Africa's Child Warriors,” in The Independent, August 19, 2005.
Armah, Ayi Kwei, Two Thousand Seasons, Third World Press, 1980.
In an epic sweep of poetic language, Armah describes the story of the African colonial experience and calls for a return to African culture. Iweala has called the book influential to his literary career because of its language and narrative voice
Honwana, Alcinda, Child Soldiers in Africa (The Ethnography of Political Violence), University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
Honwana offers an analysis of the lives of child soldiers in Africa, including how they are recruited, their experiences in war, and how they cope with their actions. The author draws on her own first-hand knowledge, gleaned from working with children from Angola and Mozambique.
Singer, P.W., Children at War, University of California Press, 2006.
Singer explores the phenomenon of child soldiers in a comprehensive fashion, tracing the origins of the practice to its current expansion worldwide. He includes information on training, indoctrination, and postwar activities.
Uwechue, Raph, Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War: Facing the Future, Trafford, 2006.
Drawing on his own experiences, Uwechue discusses the three-year Nigeria—Biafra War, which tore apart Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. This civil war, and the roles his relatives played in it, were inspirational to Iweala wanting to write his novel.