Child narration is not an easy technique in writing novels, yet in the novel “Beasts of No Nation”, Iweala uses the technique most effectively to create an elucidating picture for his audience. Through the eyes of a child, he presents the issue of war, loss of childhood and death in a way that adults can remember and question the damaging effects of these issues on children. The child narrator question the things adults take for granted and can make a horrible situation more appealing to a reader. In addition, the author uses the voice of the child to show the reader the inner struggles that people face when they in situations where they face personal choices. The Commandant forces Agu in Chapter one to make a choice about his life from then. Agu chooses to fight with the disorganized army as he seeks revenge for his father’s death. The choice is inevitable as history shows that to join the army at a young age is normal in these West African societies. As a child, Agu presents the ways that adults would deal with joining the army. However, his childlike voice shows the doubt he has about killing. He notes he is killing because it is the normal thing to do when one is faced with the choice of life. He chooses to live and at the same time the reader recognizes that he begins to learn to adjust to his life as a killer.
The reader looks through the eyes of Agu at the world where children are abuse in many ways and how the abuse alters their perception of the real world. Through his eyes, the reader further see how the world forces and hardens the youth and make them into cold-blooded killers with no purpose or values. With the “naïve” interpretations of the issues in the society, Agu gives a different perspective of the rape, murders, and robbery that occurs in these West African societies while, presenting the harsh conditions under which young boys survive. The child narrators are confined to the role as honest and innocent participants in their surroundings. It is this anxiety that makes the story of “Beast of No Nations” so enlightening. Agu is vulnerable to the treacherous, yet affectionate temperament of the new commander. As the war ensue, Agu finds himself raiding villages and killing innocent women and children, he becomes more and more detached from the simple Christian life he knew as a boy, and before the conflict started. He shows how child soldiers grow up quickly to become men who fight to support their beliefs of war. Agu’s perspectives, however, change as in the end he get out of the war and tries to start over. Agu views are strong as his voice shows the confusion of a young boy who becomes trapped in a world of murder, rape and death. This narrative perspective helps to create a disturbing, imaginative, and profoundly affecting novel that shows the cruelty to children and how these children deal with the dangers of a society that promotes death as a way of life.
Iweala’s novel “Beast of No Nation” looks at the child soldier fighting in the civil war, in an unnamed African country. He lives through torture and becomes a product of the time. He murders and steals in order to survive his ordeal. The novel is compelling, painful, and powerful” (Nigerian Business Places, 2012) as it seeks to give the readers an insight into the lives of child soldiers in African countries. One can say that Iweala wrote, “Beast of No Nation” to promote awareness of the dilemma of child soldiers, however many reviewers continue to criticize the political perspective of the novel. These critics based their premise on the fact that in the end, Iweala gives a clear picture of the “shaky, fragile redemption” that forces the reader to question where the world was as Agu trades his youth for the “brutal existence [that] no child should ever have to face”. The fact that the story is told from a child perspective, help to draw the reader’s attention to the novel. The choice of words and terminologies are youthful and reflects a child who did not have an opportunity to complete his education. This choice is in contrast to the writer’s qualification as a Harvard graduate. The language can be seen as difficult at first, but it adds to the ambiance of the events and makes it more believable. The reader sees the story from the point of view of a child and develops a clearer understanding of the harsh and painful conditions of child soldiers and the inner conflict they face. Agu reminds himself "I am not bad boy. I am soldier” (page 23) as he tries to justify his actions. Later, he says “I am only doing what is right" (p. 23). This childlike voice seeks to add to the doubts he has about the war that is going on.
The Commandant and his soldiers give Agu and his fellow child soldiers drug so that they fight better. He is trained to kill and later enjoys the act. Like any normal human being, Agu is uncertain of everything around him except that he hates the life he now lives and that the life he knew with his family in the church is over. He becomes disoriented and says "Time is passing. Time is not passing. Day is turning into night. Night is turning into day. How can I know what is happening?" However, with the destruction of his childhood, Agu remains innocent and unaware of what happens around him. The reality is that the war does not represent a grand scheme as history would suggest, but instead it is a part of the real world that exists around Agu – one that is brutal and deadly and survival is the order of the day. As such, Agu is blameless for his acceptance of the new life, but the lessons taught are that, both children and adults adjust to the changing times in the same way. Iweala writes, “Beast of No Nation” in the first person narrative as the story unfolds from Agu’s perspective. Agu is a child who fights like a soldier. He remembers his experience as a soldier as vividly as he remembers his family and the experience of school. While his experiences as a soldier are traumatic, Agu continues with the hope that life would be better in the end. He wants to be a “Doctor of Engineer”. Iweala shows how Agu is wrenched from his world of principles and thrown into a world where the violence is senseless and difficult for his young mind to grasp. Agu is the witness to the senseless killing of his father and the demolishing of his village. In the “ill-equipped army” that he fights with, Agu learns at the onset that he either kills or is killed. However, he says he is "not even having one uniform because I am too small." This childish perspective of the army wearing uniform creates the idea that the guerilla group of army and their ideas about the war are not organized.
Eventually, Agu adjusts to the experience even though it puts him in a position that goes against the principles of the community that taught him the first lessons of life. History supports the issues raised by Iweala in his book, as for many decades the use of child soldiers dominated the African society. These horror stories have made the news on many occasions, and Iweala seeks to give his reader’s and insight into the harsh realities of these children. According to the Nigerian Business Place (2012), the book serves as an eye opener to the insufferable life that many people endure in that part of Africa, and the dangers surrounding poverty, bad government practices, and dictatorship. Furthermore, there is immeasurable description of the usual atrocities associated with horror of such pointless war which, based on Agu’s ideas were peculiar occasions that promotes an idyllic background and lends itself to a more sympathetic understanding from the reader.
The shell-shocked and feeble-minded West African child soldier narrator easily draws the reader into the web of the horrific experiences of the West African society. Iweala based his book on a magazine article based on child soldiers and his father’s experience as a guerilla fighter. These factors helped to structure his ideas in the book. He uses Agu’s voice and language to depict the childish perceptions of the events in the society. Iweala admits to critics that Agu’s language is based on his personal, imaginative perception how Nigerian’s speak English. The language (African patois) is difficult at first glance, but upon careful analysis it represents a clear understanding of Agu’s “tortured psyche”. One can easily understand the emotions that associated with this language. The harsh realities in the book reveal themselves early in the book. In Chapter one, Agu, the reader realizes the simple language of the narrator as the book opens with his beating from Strika. “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”(Chapter one, paragraph one). The reader is sympathetic towards Agu who believes that he is dead. His beaten is so severe that when the Commandant asks him his name, he forgets it for a moment. Iweala use of Agu here as the narrator is compelling as the reader recognizes his childlike thoughts and cannot resist the urge to become angry and sympathetic towards the child.
Similarly, the reader is introduced to the role of leadership through the eyes of Agu. The “Luftenant” eases on his accusations when the powerful Commandant arrives. The Commandant first puts the idea of being a soldier in his mind as 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?” (Chapter one) One of the major lessons in the book, “Beasts of No Nation”, is that one needs to think before one makes a decision as it might change the real life experiences of the individual, in other words it important to think it all the way through before making a decision. Agu is placed in a bad situation because of a bad choice that he makes. But, as soon as he joins them, they ask him to kill the enemies they found. The narrative perspective in the book is further heightened in Chapter two when Agu is learning to be a soldier, but his innocence force him to worry about killing someone for the first time. The poor choice he makes in Chapter one places him in a position to question what he was asked to do. He becomes sick, as any child would, after his first kill. Towards the end of the Chapter, Agu 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”. The distinctive style of the narrative perspective reflects the use of the present tense, and this occurs throughout the narration and adds immediacy to the events and heightens the impact of the language and the urgency of the events in the story (Deutsch, 2007). While the use of this tense is unusual, the reader becomes familiar with the style easily.
Agu’s narration reflects that of the common child soldier in the African society. This voice is important to the narrative and is vital to the success of the story. The narrative voice represents innocence towards the person that Agu becomes as a soldier. There is no presence of over analyzing the events as they happen. In fact, the reader gets a firsthand exposure to these killings through Agu. Agu his horrific experiences in an uncomplicated and unwavering language that is fitting for his age. His youthfulness and the vulnerability of his thoughts and emotions adds power and makes the story more credible. As a child, Agu is forced into a world that he does not comprehend. The adult acts of killing, war, killing, and corruption pull Agu in, but there is never an instance where the reader believes that he is a part of that world, although he is living in that world. Agu justifies his acts of killing as he says ''I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing''. Furthermore, ''I am telling this to myself because soldier is supposed to be killing, killing, killing.''
The style of writing is straightforward, but contains lyrics in the descriptions and the reader is left to wonder if Iweala has imposed himself as a writer on the child, when Agu describes his first kill in Chapter two: “the world is moving slowly,seeing each drop of blood sweat, flying here and there bird flapping their wing It is sounding like thunder.” He continues to give a detailed description of the feeling he gets as feels and sees the blood all around him. “My nose and mouth is itching. I am seeing all the color everywhere and my belly is feeling empty. I am growing hard between my legs. Is this like falling in love?” (Chapter two) It is the Commandant who teaches Agu that killing is similar to falling in love. He also teaches Agu the art of war and the lesson of killing versus surviving. The reader, however, becomes aware of the seriousness of the role of the character as he is the face of the viciousness of the war that is going on. He is the “personification of the forces” (Deutsch, 2007) which forces Agu along with the other “soldiers” to engage in these violent actions. The author does not ease in his quest to present the cruelty to Agu, as a child. The psychological power that the Commandant wields over boy is physical and sexual. This power adds to the bleak reality of life for Agu. The reader quickly becomes sensitive to the Agu’s plight. Of course, this addition to the events is horrifying to envision, but, this insightful breakdown in the society is real in places like Sudan. Children must become killers and show no emotions to this hopelessness.
At a young age, Agu learns to adjust to the realities of the war around him. However, he forces himself to adjust to the expected maiming and killing of being in the army. He separates himself from the uncomplicated happiness of the life he had before the war started. He had a good life with his friends, at church, and the time he spent with his family. As he reflects on the happier times, his reality slowly diminishes into unfathomable cruelty, primitive horror, and loss of his self worth and self-esteem. His friendship with Strika, another child soldier, gives a false sense that his life was normal. In a striking yet powerful voice that clearly shows his emotional uncertainty of the harsh realities of life and the pounding guilt that follows his actions, Agu takes the reader through the travels, violence, and betrayals that was symbolic of new life. As Agu grows into his new role as a soldier, but later realizes that in order to save himself and regain some of his values, he must escape the life of the guerrilla. The book represents the passing of childhood in the face of war. Iweala’s recount of the social issues as they exist in these African societies are not social comments, as he focuses the storyline on Agu’s internal fight to preserve a sense of the person he is and the religious values he was taught by his mother. The writer does not channel the storyline towards the dreadfulness of war, or the manner in which he presents males as beasts. However, even as a child, Agu does not give in to the beast inside him. He holds on to keeps his humanity even though he faces the “senseless cruelty” of the real world. All throughout the book, Iweala does falter in his fascinating, yet pounding narrative voice. This voice fits Agu's intelligent, but uncomplicated background. He shows the roadside “massacres” in a bleak, yet liberal writing style with eagerly “observed sensuality” ''I am bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing''. The sporadic moments of poetry ''This darkness is so full like it is my mother's hug'' hints at the likelihood of Agu's deliverance, while leaving the readers spell-bound as they begin to grasp just how much Agu matures.
Agu’s mental maturity heightens as he recounts, "[Amy] is telling me to speak speak speak and thinking that my not speaking is because I am like baby.” He furthers notes “But every time I am sitting with her 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" (p. 140) His inner struggles to return to normalcy is hampered by the fact that he has seen so much as a warrior that he can only think about his experiences. The reader automatically recognizes that the war turned Agu into a man before his years. Igwelia skillfully presents the damaging effects of war on people through Agu. This idea makes the realities of war more believable as it is difficult to grasp the fact that a child could reason in such a manner in such a short period. Throughout his part in a murder of the woman and her daughter during one of the group's raids on the villages, Agu begins to accept his role as a killer. His realizes that: “I am wanting to kill; I don't know why. I am just wanting to kill" (p. 47). This acts as a stark contrast to the Agu at the start of the book who is innocent and who becomes sick the first time he kills someone. Now the reader recognizes that this change is inevitable and cannot fault Agu for losing himself to the war around him.
The reality is that a war teaches adaptation and Agu have to adjust in order to stay alive. Nevertheless, one may argue that he knowingly embraces his murderous qualities as he could have opted to die instead of becoming as those who had murdered his father. But, how could he not adjust to the society’s way of life? Initially, he seeks childlike revenge for his father’s death but in the end, the psychological thrill of taking someone’s life and play God takes hold of Agu and he succumbs to it for a while. However, the writer proves that a sound reasoning can prevail in through murderous intents as in the final chapter Agu seeks counseling after his escape from the army and the death of the Commandant. One could say that Iweala uses the child narrator to teach the adults that irrespective of the circumstances of war, there are ways to get past the meaningless nature of it. While one may say that war is inevitable and that it affects everyone, including children, Agu shows that people make bad choices, but these choices are reversible.
He remembers the United Nations’ peacekeepers effort to save his family his mother and sister with quiet understanding of the effects of war. He notes (p.69) that the war had taken everything away from them in the village and that the women were important, and their absence creates a different atmosphere. He realizes that nothing is the same in the village anymore as the women chatter and the men remained silent “like somebody is dying" (p. 69). His mother is important to him and even at the end of the book, he clings to her memory as he acknowledges that he is who he is but his mother loved him once and still loved him (p. 142). He realizes that time passed by quickly. He realized that the preoccupation with the war, he was no longer a child. The reader recognizes that even Agu realized that even after the war, he could no longer go back to the days of his childhood. The warrior way of life compromise his religious and his actions were more of a man than a boy. He had lived through the hardships of a war that robbed him of his innocence and his virtue. However, to some extent he maintains his innocence as he describes, in his childlike ways, the surroundings. The tiny details of the insects and the sounds they make. The truth is, Agu is forced to grow into a man before he is ready.
Agu’s lack of ability to show emotions is clear in his departure with the other soldiers. He sees the death of his best friend, Strika but cannot respond in an emotional way: "Strika is just looking like one piece of refuses on this road. I am trying to be crying, but no tear is coming out from my eye, and 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" (p. 131). At the same that Agu recognizes that the war has had a profound impact on him, the reader also recognizes that Agu has lost so much of himself in such a short space of time. He loses his parents, his virginity, his childhood, and now his ability to feel and form of emotions. In addition, it is understandable that the quickly betrays the Commandant and has no remorse at his death. One could say that death is the justifiable end to the Commandant, who has robbed Agu of his childhood. Agu notes that: "Never will I be feeling sorry for him. Never will I be helping him. I am lowering my gun" (p. 123). His response is dramatic to say the least and at once the reader recognizes that Agu sought revenge on the man who had taken his innocence and made him into a hardened killer he has become. The harshness of his life with the other soldiers draws to an end as the power that controlled his actions was lost to death.
In concluding, the book is a disturbing piece, as every event represents bare facts of a society that contains much horror stories of the war. Through the child narrator, the reader clearly sees the organized pictures of senseless sacrifices, people who are starving, and soldiers move from pride to appalling, sexual ruin. The child narrator, Agu, wonder about the past, as it relates to the merriment of the people and the ritualistic dance that gave the status of manhood in the village. He also wonders at the realities of being able to carry a weapon without thinking of war. Overall the book is one that mourns the loss of childhood and forces sympathy from the readers, who clearly see the harsh realities of the West African societies. In the final chapters, Agu is filled with hope that rehabilitation is a possibility. The brutality of death and sexual degradation speaks to the moral values of the society and how becomes lost in some culture. The question of whether the story is worth telling is mute, because while the events are terrifying even to imagine, keeping silent about such horrifying events is worse. Through the voice of Agu, Iweala silently demands that the story should not be limited to the West African or focus on the issues child warriors in the modern society.
“Beast of No Nation” – Literary Newsmakers for Students (2009) (n.a.), Encyclopaedia.com
Web. 18 May 2014.
Deutsch, Noah (2007) The Grim and the Dead – Beast of No Nation by Umizodinma Iwela
Geier, Thom (2005) Entertainment Weekly - Beasts of No Nation (2005) on Nov 09, 2005. Web.
17 May 2014
Smith, Ali (2005) The Guardian/Observer – The Lost Boys Saturday, 3 September 2005. Web.
17 May 2014