Title: Beasts of No Nation
Author: Uzodimma Iweala
Any great work of art, be it a painting, a poem or a piece of fiction, must have a purpose. When I talk here of purpose, I do not mean the kind of purpose realized only in the mind of the creator – like say, an unintelligible piece of poetry or an unsavoury prose. For any literary piece to be called “great” or to achieve the status of a “masterpiece”, its purpose must be realized. This purpose can be realized in a number of ways: the excellent realism of Adichie’s first novel for instance, the controversial themes of her second novel or the third in which she handles no less a topical issue like race in the US and black women wearing the hairs of Asians and Europeans! From Madam Bovary to Telephone Conversation, each great literary piece has served at least, a purpose.
I have just read Uzodimma Iweala’s Beasts of no Nation. The novel does a good work of articulating the sufferings of the protagonist Agu and the other soldiers who wander around in the bushes and forests of a country the author does not name. However, the name of the pre-adolescent protagonist, Agu, is Igbo and many pointers like the colour of skin and level of hardship exist to help the reader discern the work is set in Africa.
As I read through Beasts of no Nation, I continued asking myself, what is the purpose of this work? What relevance does it have for today’s society? Simply put, What does this work bring to the party? The story of a boy ravaged by hunger? Of a society destroyed by war? We have heard these. Each day, I am fed by Western media with the imagery of The Hungry African Child, his eyes sinking profoundly into its lifeless eye sockets, flies perching on his shrivelled ebony lips, arms no wider than a broomstick, stomach filled but yet empty with malnutrition, skin fading from rich beautiful brown to a pale ugly translucent yellow. This is the story of Beasts of no Nation. This is the story of CNN. This kind of story surely is amongst the favourite dinner time broadcast made for the feel-goody times of Western dames and gents. It is a story that the West uses all the enormous resources in its deep and entrenched capacities to reinforce. Yet, unfortunately, this is the single story of Beasts of no Nation.
To be sure I was making no mistakes, I asked myself, in what ways is this story new? In what ways is this novel different? In what ways does this piece of work enhance the reality of life on the African continent? I saw none. The only new thing in Beasts of no Nation is the literary novelty of writing a relatively full length novel through the reduced vocabulary of a sub-Saharan African boy grappling with the turbulences of adolescence and bad grammar.
That the author has the potential to write a better work is not in doubt; he published Beasts of no Nation at 23. One of the reasons why I feel compelled to write this review is due to the accolades that the work has received – especially in Western circles. These accolades that make it seem as if the work is among the best that can come from Nigeria and the larger continent. I think the beautiful one(s) is yet to come. I found the last pages particularly troubling – more because, it fit perfectly into the entire Western stereotype of what is wrong with Africa and how it is the muzungu who must rescue the clueless African. This was my ultimate disappointment with the work: that it was a white American lady who comes in to salvage Agu, the now adolescent boy whose soul has been ravaged by the realities of raping raping, killing killing, cursing cursing and eating food stained in his victims’ blood.