Suffer the Children

(Anthony Russo)

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Reviewed by Anderson Tepper
Sunday, November 20, 2005

BEASTS OF NO NATION

By Uzodinma Iweala

HarperCollins. 142 pp. $16.95

JOHNNY MAD DOG

By Emmanuel Dongala

Translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher

Farrar Straus Giroux. 321 pp. $26

Given the horrific news emanating from West Africa in recent years, Beasts of No Nation , a debut novel by the 23-year-old Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala, can't help but be arresting from the start. The prophetic inscription comes from Afro-Beat pioneer and patron saint of rebellion Fela Kuti: "This uprising will bring out the beast in us." And, indeed, right from the opening, Iweala's slim, incendiary novel immerses us in the nightmarish chaos and savagery of an unnamed African country's civil war.

The protagonist, Agu, who is swept up by the war as a child, babbles feverishly from the beginning: "It is starting like this. I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin," and he hardly stops to draw a breath over the course of the book. His local patois comes spilling out in staccato-like pidgin English, mangled and bent by African inflection, hopped up with fear and panic. And yet even with his basic, grade-school level vocabulary, Agu is able to express his own transfiguration during war. It's a raw, painful journey for him and a difficult one for the reader as well. How do you enter a novel like this, so unrelentingly grim, so alien in voice, in character, in subject? And how tricky is it for an author -- especially a Harvard-educated, first-time novelist like Iweala -- to pull off such a tour de force of traumatic violence?

When we first encounter him, Agu is cowering in the darkness, hiding with other villagers as rebels ransack their homes. His father has been butchered; his mother and sister are missing. The world as he knows it has been permanently ruptured. He quakes in fear, a mosquito-like droning in his ears, as the soldiers decide to recruit him and spare his life. Soon, he must take the plunge and learn how to kill, mutilate and rape without question or remorse. Together with his cohorts "Rambo," "Luftenant" and "Strika," Agu gets high on "gun juice" and becomes even more crazed and bloodthirsty.

"My mind is becoming rotten like the inside of fruit," Agu worries as he recalls the days of childhood before the war, when he studied the Bible and aimed to follow in the footsteps of his schoolteacher father. "I am fearing that I am not knowing myself anymore," he later despairs, as he grows weary of the gun-toting treks through the jungle. (He is repeatedly raped by the squad's leader, known simply as Commandant.) Iweala's novel lurches through the days and nights of Agu's transformation into brute and brutalized soldier, awash in blood and gore. "All the time bullet is just eating everything, leaf, tree, ground, person -- eating them -- just making person to bleed everywhere," he wails, "and there is so much blood flooding all over the bush."

If Iweala's personification of an African child soldier is stripped-down and terrifyingly immediate, Emmanuel Dongala, who himself fled the violence in the Republic of Congo in 1997, weaves a more varied narrative in his latest work, Johnny Mad Dog . (His earlier novel, Little Boys Come from the Stars , was published here in 2001.) Though shocking in its own right, the action of Johnny Mad Dog isn't restricted to the tunnel vision of one character. Dongala builds dramatic tension through the dueling voices of two narrators on different sides of the conflict. There's Laokol, a willful, 16-year-old refugee who attempts to flee the violence with her crippled mother, and Johnny Mad Dog himself, a trigger-happy teenager with raging hormones and delusions of grandeur. In alternating chapters, Laokol and Johnny describe their personal ordeals: Laokol dreams of becoming an engineer, while using her grit and resourcefulness to protect her younger brother and mother; Johnny rampages through murderous sprees while attempting to choose a proper nickname for himself ("Poison Weed" just doesn't cut it) and prove his intellectual pedigree (his fourth-grade education puts him well above his comrades). Ultimately, in the book's climax, their paths will cross.

Clearly, Dongala is having it both ways -- or several ways -- with his description of this murky war. Not only does he show the terror; he shows the absurdity, the banality, even the cruel humor. He mocks Johnny and his ragtag battalion of half-wits and madmen, who are constantly mixing up the rhetoric of their superiors. They don't even really know why they are embroiled in a battle pitting ethnic Mayi-Dogos against Dogo-Mayis. But Johnny and his ilk aren't the only ones Dongala makes fun of. He also takes swipes at Western relief workers, U.N. troops, the international media and "political experts" who continue to recycle the same story from Africa's war zones. One of Laokol's harshest epiphanies comes as helicopters arrive to evacuate gorillas and chimpanzees endangered by the fighting. "Why them and not me?" she cries. "Because the extinction of the apes would be a great loss for humanity," she's told flatly.

And yet as the violence escalates and Johnny's position within his militia group rises (more confusion: Are they rebels, soldiers or rebel soldiers?), Laokol begins to represent a ray of hope. Somehow, she keeps running into people with big hearts willing to help her. "I couldn't figure out why -- in this evil, disaster-ridden world I'd been living in for the past few days -- people still persisted in doing good," she says. And even as Johnny becomes more debauched and "drunk with blood and sperm," Laokol gazes up at the stars at night and holds on to the fragile thread of life until she can exhale: "The fresh air was like a tonic, and I was filled with an all-encompassing joy. Joy at being alive. Joy at having survived. Joy at continuing to live."

Though very different, both these books confront head-on a harsh reality in Africa today: children raised in -- and raised by -- war. And, ultimately, it's hard for this subject not to overpower both novels, to flatten the characters, to drain the action of any subtlety. Both are full-immersion books, carried on the back like oversized guns, about the tribulations of their adolescent narrators. And both are riddled with as many questions as bullets: How can a country survive that cannibalizes its youth, that teaches them to kill, to maim, to loot? "Yet again, our [expletive] country had killed one of its children," Laokol mourns. "What kind of country kills its children in cold blood?"

Anderson Tepper is an associate editor at VanityFair.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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