Some fictional characters are easier to imagine being than others, either because they’re more like us (‘we’ being whoever’s doing the imagining, whether readers or writers), or because they’re more like characters familiar from other stories. Agu, the narrator of Beasts of No Nation, Uzodinma Iweala’s short, intense and ambitious first novel, is a rebel soldier in a civil war in an anonymous African country. He has no sense of the cause he is fighting for, or even who his leaders are, beyond his immediate superiors, men he knows only as Commandant and Luftenant. He spends his days ‘walking and fighting and soldiering and running’ – ‘soldiering’ encompasses killing, raping, mutilating. Most nights, he is himself raped by Commandant. It’s not surprising that Agu doesn’t understand the larger political purpose of all this: he is, after all, only a child.
The novel begins with Agu’s recruitment by the rebels, who find him hiding after his village has been attacked. By way of initiation, he is made to hack to death with a machete an enemy soldier they’ve ambushed: when he’s finished, the man’s ‘head is broken everywhere and there is just blood, blood, blood’. Agu’s life before the war comes to him in memories, dreams and hallucinations. His father was a schoolteacher, and his mother would read him stories from the Bible. He learned to read early himself, and his mother used to call him ‘professor’. When he went to school, he was put in a class with children older than himself – an ironic premonition of the hideous precociousness that is forced on him during the war. His best friend at school was called Dike, the son of an engineer; in Commandant’s battalion he is closest to another boy, Strika, who either can’t or won’t speak.
Agu describes a coming-of-age ceremony that used to take place in his village before the war. There would be a great feast, and the men wore masks and danced the Dance of the Warrior, with bells on their ankles and wooden machetes. The festival culminated with the Dance of the Ox and Leopard, during which the ‘top boy’ sacrificed a cow. All the boys who were old enough rubbed the blood into their bodies. And then when the music stopped and the dancers removed their masks, the masquerade came to an end, and these boys had become men. Agu thinks that if it weren’t for the war, he would be a man by now.
In the war there is no ceremony, only slaughter. The soldiers have become not men but monsters. And they have no masks to remove: the war has no foreseeable end, and no limits. However far he runs, Agu knows he will never be able to escape it. He sees a map in a school that has been turned into a military headquarters, and realises that the entire country is engulfed by war. ‘If I am to run away,’ he thinks, ‘where can I be running to?’ Soldiers brought the war to his village, and now he takes it with him wherever he goes. Commandant and his men camp somewhere which, if it weren’t for the fighting, ‘would be too nice to be looking at . . . But we are coming here and bringing the war.’ When one of the soldiers refuses to fight any more, Commandant orders the rest of them to kick him to death. Agu keeps hoping to find his mother and sister, who left their village before the rebels arrived. In one raid, Agu discovers a mother and daughter hiding under a bed. ‘Are you my mother?’ he asks. ‘Are you my sister?’ Commandant tells him that they are the enemy, who stole Agu’s food and burned his house down and chased him from his village and killed his father. Agu and another soldier hold the woman down while Strika rapes her. The girl won’t let go of her mother, and Strika cuts off her hand. ‘You are not my mother,’ Agu says to the woman as he chops her to death with his knife.
How is it possible to imagine what it is like to be someone like Agu? Or, to put the question another way, how does a work of fiction speak in his voice? Iweala is a Harvard graduate and the son of Nigeria’s finance minister, which is relevant only to the extent that it means Beasts of No Nation isn’t autobiographical, and doesn’t claim to be. But he has worked in Nigeria with survivors of West Africa’s civil wars, and Beasts of No Nation is written with the authority of someone who knows what he’s talking about. It’s also written in a way that acknowledges the problems of representing a life of such extraordinary brutality that it’s almost beyond imagining.
Agu speaks in non-standard English. Most of the story is told in the present continuous tense, though some of the flashbacks slip into the imperfect; he rarely distinguishes plural nouns from singular, but sometimes adds an ‘s’ to a word that is already plural, or one that shouldn’t be; he uses no indirect articles; he repeats words for emphasis:
My feets is paining me. My leg is paining me. My knee is hurting because we are training very hard now. All the time just training training. They are telling us to run up and down so we are running up and down like we are running race when I am schoolboy. They are telling us to be crawling on the grasses and to be running zigzag to be dodging pretend bullet. I am hot and my body is too tired. I am not feeling good at all at all.
The danger of ventriloquising Agu in this way is that it could have been condescending: by constraining his speech, Iweala could have limited Agu’s character too, denied him the hyperarticulate thought processes that most narrators of novels are blessed with.
But he didn’t. Agu is astonishingly eloquent, beyond his years, and his rich vocabulary (some of it West African: chook, meaning ‘stab’ or ‘poke’; the interjection enh), sophisticated syntax and forceful rhythms are enhanced by the limitations of his grammar:
I am just watching as they are unloading all the thing that we are looting from different village off all the truck. I am watching as the sun is leaving small by small from the sky and how all the colour is making truck drivers’ skin to be shining when they are going into the engine to make sure that they are running well well for the next day. And in the small small light, they are coming out just shining with oil even if it is getting dark. Still if I am looking too hard they are beginning to disappear like ghost.
Agu looks hard at everything: he has always been an intelligent and curious boy. And he describes what he sees in a voice that is vivid and compelling, but also estranging. If Iweala risked underrepresenting Agu’s consciousness by writing in this way, having him speak in standard English would have posed the equal and opposite – and possibly unavoidable – danger of making him seem too comfortably knowable to readers used to the conventions of English fiction.
It’s not a question of Agu’s voice being ‘realistic’, exactly. Since place names are deliberately withheld, it’s impossible to say where he’s from, and whether or not his voice is an accurate depiction of any particular dialect is beside the point. Beasts of No Nation is not interested in making a case for the status of a particular form of non-standard English in the way that, say, the novels of James Kelman or the poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson are. But Agu’s voice is authentic in the more important sense that it conveys an impression of a fully developed human consciousness, however damaged. It is also true to Agu’s experience; the use of the present continuous tense reflects the permanent nightmarish state of his existence: ‘Time is passing. Time is not passing. Day is changing to night. Night is changing to day. How can I know what is happening?’
But there are signs of the passage of time in this tightly constructed story. The soldiers’ numbers and resources are steadily depleted, and Agu grows older. At first, ‘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.’ Later, however, there are enough guns to go round, and Agu is big enough to carry one: ‘Now it is so hot because the sun is beating on my back and making my gun to warm so much that it is feeling like hot iron on my back. I know it is making mark and burning my back so I am like cow and belonging to one owner which is gun.’
His vocabulary, too, is branded by the gun, his total absorption into the military marked by changes in diction. At first, the word he uses for ‘penis’ is ‘thing’, a childish, neutral word: ‘He is opening his trouser and pulling out his thing.’ It is soon replaced by ‘soldier’, however, a weapon of war. The soldiers’ ‘soldiers’ are as often as not standing at ‘tenshun’, and committing acts of appalling violence. Agu enters puberty while with the rebels: his first sexual experience is masturbating outside the window of a brothel while the older soldiers have sex with the prostitutes inside.
Then just when you think you can’t bear to read any more of this, the soldiers too decide that they’ve had enough, and Commandant’s rebels rebel against him. Abandoned by the others, barely able to walk, Agu has his own moment of revelation, or revolution: ‘I am looking at my gun and I am saying to it, I am not needing you anymore. Just stay where you are. My shoulder that it is always sitting on is hurting so much but I am feeling it jubilating because it is not having to be obeying gun anymore.’
The final chapter is set in a rehabilitation unit near the ocean. ‘In heaven, I am thinking it is always morning.’ It’s in such a place that Iweala must have encountered boys like Agu. It’s run by a priest called Father Festus, who is assisted by people like Amy: ‘She is white woman from America who is coming here to be helping people like me. Her teeths is too small and her tongue is too big for her mouth so she is speaking through her nose, but her nose is too small so sometimes it is troubling me too much to be hearing what she is saying.’
It’s hard not to see Amy in part as an anticipation of one type of reader that the novel is likely to have; she’s certainly the character I find it easiest to identify with. The difficulty that Agu and Amy have communicating with each other implies the need for an intermediary, perhaps a novelist like Iweala. For not only is Agu often unable to understand what Amy says, he is also unable to tell her what he has done and undergone, because he misinterprets her reaction: ‘So I am saying to her, if I am telling this to you it will be making you to think that I am some sort of beast or devil. Amy is never saying anything when I am saying this, but the water is just shining in her eye.’ Because he does not pity himself – the absence of self-pity is one of the novel’s many strengths – it doesn’t cross his mind that one of Amy’s, or a reader’s, reactions to his story might be pity: along with anxiety, despair, disgust, excitement (harder to admit to), fear, horror, outrage, shame. Agu does not deny his monstrousness, but also, throughout the novel, demonstrates the sense of himself distilled in his defiant last statement: ‘And I am saying to her, fine. I am all of this thing. I am all of this thing, but I am also having mother once, and she is loving me.’