SHELF LIFE- Boy soldiers: When violence isn't evil

Beasts of No Nation

By Uzodinma Iweala

160 pages, HarperCollins

Many in the audience nodded in agreement when 23-year old author Uzodinma Iweala said, "Everyone has a right to tell the story they want to tell." But, as many would also agree, to write about war and political violence is to venture outside the realm of mere storytelling.

To write about these subjects in the context of one's own cultural or national identity requires special negotiation of fact and opinion, of creative license and social responsibility.

Speaking at the New Dominion Bookshop Saturday, March 25, as part of the Festival of the Book, Iweala described two lessons he learned while composing his first novel, Beasts of No Nation, about civil war in his native Nigeria.

"If you're going to tell stories, you have to tell all stories, both the good and the bad," he said. The second is more controversial: "People who commit acts of violence are not always evil people."

This statement captures the central theme of Iweala's seminar, "Foreign Worlds, Dangerous Settings." The pace of the modern world, Iweala explained, makes it difficult to accommodate complexity in our moral judgments.

"That's not to apologize for those who commit acts of violence," he said, "but to say that it's not so simple."

Achieving an understanding of such complexity was Iweala's goal when he set out, in his late teens, to explore the phenomenon of the "child soldier" in African conflicts. How can a 9-year-old be taught to bear the soldier's burden to murder? What historical conditions accommodate such horror?

Iweala's novel gives the reader a starting place to answer these complex questions. Told from the perspective of the child protagonist, Agu, and set in an unnamed West African nation, the novel depicts Agu's transformation from a gentle, precocious elementary school student to a cold-blooded killer. When civil war comes to the village, his mother and sister flee, and he and his father stay behind to confront the intruders.

The dissolution of Agu's idyllic village life is complete when he witnesses his father's murder. Suffering from shock and extreme hunger, and desperately seeking some form of stability, young Agu is adopted by the band of rag-tag warriors headed by the ruthless Commandant and his opportunistic counterpart, Luftenant.

At the beginning of his talk, Iweala was quick to mention that he has little firsthand experience with political violence, and that Agu's story is the product of scholarly research. He provided some biographical information: though his family descends from Nigeria, Iweala was born in the United States, attended prep school in Washington, D.C. and spent four years at Harvard studying English literature.

Awareness of Iweala's background detracts little from the book's impact, or from its perceived authenticity. Beasts of No Nation reflects more than just a passing acquaintance with Nigerian culture. In addition, Agu's native tongue, a variation of Pidgen English, is rendered in its authentic, rhythmic form: "Sometimes I am thinking, if army is always having one uniform for its soldier to wear, and we are not all wearing the same uniform, then how can we be army?"

Agu's reflections about his war experiences seem naive at first, but his observations about how they have changed him are as striking as they are simple and obvious. Throughout the novel, they help to frame Iweala's central moral concerns without betraying his authorial voice. When Agu thinks to himself, I am not bad boy. I am soldier, and soldier is not bad if he is killing, the reader becomes acutely aware of the psychological impact of war on its youngest victims.

Acknowledging the value of comic relief, Iweala said that the working title of his novel had been Born on the Breath of Tomorrow– which would imply a story of a dramatically different character than Beasts of No Nation. The actual title is the more appropriate of the two, as it captures both the gravity of the issue and its universal significance.