Silent Warrior

By Reviewed by Louise Bernard
Sunday, September 2, 2007


A Novella

By Chris Abani

Akashic. 167 pp. Paperback, $12.95

We take a necessary, if lurid, interest in the tragic fate of the child soldier, a figure not especially new in the history of war, but one that remains an unsettling paradox all the same -- the ineffable mixing of innocence and terror. The Nigerian writer Chris Abani's latest novella, Song for Night, follows in the wake of two exceptional books exploring the theme of boy soldiers and internecine war on the African continent -- Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation and Ishmael Beah's memoir, A Long Way Gone-- and it also complements Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's award-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which is set, like Abani's short work, against the backdrop of the Biafran war.

We follow, through interior monologue, the plight of a 15-year-old land mine sweeper called My Luck, cut off from his comrades after an explosion and now on a quest to reunite with his platoon. It's a lonely, frightening task, tramping through abandoned villages, the river full of floating corpses, the stench of death palpable at every turn. While seemingly the war still rages on around him, we witness only the devastating aftermath of the massacres, the burned-out buildings and the solitary, traumatized figures that dot the once thriving landscape. As My Luck finds himself retracing his steps, reintroduced to scenes and flashbacks he would much rather forget, we realize that despite his self-assuredness, his compelling sense of being fully aware of his surroundings, and his dedicated mission, he is being led steadily toward an altogether unexpected place.

The beauty of the work lies in My Luck's haunting narration, an "inner-speech" that fittingly is one of pained detachment. His calm meditation on his role in the war, his acknowledgment of his guilt and shame -- a fraught combination of choice and imposition as he fights, at first, under the rule of a brutal commander and in revenge for his parents' slaughter -- is filtered through a voice that, strangely enough, is nonexistent. My Luck, like his fellow rebels, has been silenced. The platoon is mute, their vocal cords severed so that wounded screams do not interfere with the precise operation of diffusing and reclaiming the mines. Instead, the group communicates through a simple system of signs, a tender, indeed touching way of reaching out to one another. The sign for silence, for example, "is a steady hand, palm flat," while mercy "is a palm turning out from the heart." In a war where "territory shifts" between the rebels and their enemy "faster than sand tracking a desert, ground daily gained and lost," My Luck somehow holds tight to the need to feel compassion, to exercise some form of ethical stability in a world gone mad.

Initiated into the violent crime of rape, he attempts to save himself through the ministrations of his lover, Ijeoma. He wants to wrest back his soul in their defiant coupling, "to make sure that amongst all that horror, there was still love." Abani is finely attuned to the sufferings of women, and especially young girls, in a patriarchal, power-obsessed world, and he works with a moral imperative to unravel the bizarre and corrupt practices that supposedly transform boys into men.

The novella gives way to sentimentality at the very end, perhaps a forgivable flaw in a work so committed to an engaged empathy. As readers thousands of miles removed, we cannot disregard the narrator's name: "My Luck" -- his mother's only son, each of his three sisters dying young of illness. As we mouth this term of endearment, we are reminded that geography is indeed a most difficult fate. ?

Louise Bernard is an assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company