Uzodinma Iweala’s critically acclaimed novel “Beasts of No Nation” is set a West African country. This unnamed country is in political and civil turmoil. The protagonist in the novel is the child soldier Agu, who is compelled to join the militia amid chaos, fear and uncertainty. Iweala adopts a social-realistic narrative approach in portraying the human condition in a war situation. Though it is a work of fiction, the novel brings to light the harsh political conditions in third world countries.
The character of Agu is a representation of all the gun-laden children who never get to experience their childhood. Iweala describes Agu’s life before and during the civil unrest. While doing so, the author captures with poignancy the dreams and hopes of a young adolescent. But, alas, those dreams were soon to be shattered by the darker realities of life.
The novel is not so much a narration of Agu’s continuing life, but one that captures the political, social and economic realities of a boy in an environment of conflict and oppression. In this sense, “Beasts of No Nation” is not so much a story, but a snapshot of the human condition in the prevailing conditions. Agu’s father was shot and murdered, while his sister and mother were taken as slaves by “peacekeeping” forces. This is contrasted with Agu’s happy family life prior to these tragedies. Iweala exposes to the reader, Agu’s dilemma, where he had to choose between either of the two roles – the killer or the killed. For instance, Agu states: ”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.”
The author uses the civil war as a metaphor for the war that rages within Agu’s heart. Hence, unwillingly, Agu becomes an instigator of horrific crimes against his own people. Even without his complete understanding, he was an active participant in a genocide operation. When Agu first joined the gorillas, he expresses his repulsion and disgust at the sort of crimes he is expected to commit. But as his days in the militia wear on, his sensitivity and emotional acuity is numbed down. The author expressed this transformation in Agu from the words and language he uses at different points in time.
The highlight of this novel is its realistic portrayal. The narrative has many elements of non-fiction – especially descriptions of the guerilla forces and their life-styles, etc. The fiction is helpful in showing to the reader subtleties of emotion, thought and dialogue, which would have been difficult in a purely non-fictitious documentary account. In other words, the story of Agu is an abstract representation of all atrocities against children across the globe.
For someone who has had no prior experience in novel writing, the author had shown immense potential for further literary pursuits. The fact that Iweala was only 23 years of age at the time of writing this piece is further testimony to the author’s maturity and learnedness.