Who doesn’t feel humbled by the hopefulness of those who have suffered most? The unbowed spirit of Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel or young Malala Yousafzai rebukes our lazy cynicism and reminds us that there’s nothing effete about expecting better days ahead.
Six years ago, the world heard from another resilient witness to humanity’s atrocities. Ishmael Beah was a teenager when civil war engulfed his home in Sierra Leone and rebels forced him to become a killer. His bestselling memoir, “A Long Way Gone,” did much to raise public awareness of the horrific abuse of child soldiers in Africa. Since then, Beah has become a UNICEF advocate for children affected by war, and his indelible memoir has become part of the curriculum in many schools.
Now he has published a muted, emotionally nimble story of return and rebuilding. As a novel, “Radiance of Tomorrow” won’t have to suffer the interrogation that Rupert Murdoch’s Australian reporters unleashed to prove that the traumatic memories in “A Long Way Gone” contained factual and chronological errors. Beah’s characters in these pages are fictional: survivors — whole and maimed, victims and perpetrators — who somehow emerged alive from the carnage that began sweeping Sierra Leone in the early 1990s. Their experiences, rendered in Beah’s evocative, campfire voice, present a community struggling to relearn the motions of ordinary life after a nightmare that “required parting with all familiar ways.”
The scene opens on a burned-out village called Imperi. Old Mama Kadie walks out of the forest, looking for the house she fled years ago. “There were bones, human bones, everywhere,” Beah writes, “and all she could tell was which had been a child or an adult.” Determined never to flee again, Mama Kadie finds another elder in the village, and together they collect and wash the mingled femurs, skulls and ribs of their relatives and neighbors. As they work, their thoughts drift back to those unspeakable days of “Operation No Living Thing,” when gunmen arrived and began torturing and killing everyone.
But this is not the story of that carnage, nor is it a story of post-traumatic stress, despite these horrifically ripe conditions. “Radiance of Tomorrow” negotiates a delicate space somewhere between psychological realism and tribal fable, letting the stories of these people cycle gently through without any amplified drama. As more and more former residents of Imperi dare to return home, Beah flashes on their unspeakable memories of the war — crowds sprayed with bullets, hands chopped off, children raped — but he never lets those searing moments overtake the novel, any more than these people allow such memories to dominate their lives. Mama Kadie may yearn to ask, “How are you, your children and grandchildren, your wife, their health?” but she knows better. “These days one must be careful to avoid awakening the pain of another.” Instead, Mama Kadie thinks, “We are here, and we must go on living.”
How unlike the therapeutic methods of the West, with its emphasis on talking about traumatic experiences as a way of putting them to rest. Here in Imperi, the past must be buried, not expressed, shared or analyzed. The stories these villagers tell one another celebrate their heritage and character. Pa Moiwa explains, “I think stories and the old ways will bring them in contact with life, with living, and with godliness again.”
In a field of neighbors’ bleached bones, that risks sounding pat, like some African Scarlett O’Hara, but Beah is quick to complicate the rebirth of Imperi in unsettling ways. “The town’s revival was fragile,” he admits. As the loosely connected episodes of “Radiance of Tomorrow” unfold, a host of new and old evils slither back into town. The most insidious of them is corruption, which runs like an infection through every financial and political relationship in Sierra Leone. Widespread torture and murder are more dramatic, of course — and more harrowing to read about — but in a way, they’re easier to extinguish. What Beah dramatizes in this novel is the sapping waste and grinding discouragement of trying to work in an economy hobbled by nepotism, graft and bribery, a society with only the scenery of a working legal system, where, for instance, the police regularly stop buses and demand “tax payments” from every passenger.
That climate presents a humid atmosphere for foreign exploitation, encouraged by a central government that ignores the local people’s needs and tramples on their culture. In their thirst for rutile and other minerals, including diamonds, mining companies cast over these poor people what Richard Auty once called “the resource curse.” To the arrogant white men arriving from distant places, Imperi is merely “a wretched place with beautiful things in the soil.” Extracting that value cheaply and quickly requires poisoning rivers, incinerating workers and blowing up graveyards. Complain, and you’ll be arrested for slandering the benevolent job creators.
If the novel’s political argument is sometimes a bit obvious, its sympathetic exploration of the villagers’ lives is always subtle and engaging. The loosely connected episodes gradually coalesce around the experiences of two teachers, Bockarie and Benjamin, who have returned to Imperi and struggle to support their families and their students. It’s impossible not to be moved by their industriousness, but these men are up against forces insensible to their needs or their values. By the end, a conspiracy of misfortune, fraud and poverty seems completely overwhelming — a modern-day echo of what John Steinbeck and Frank Norris captured in their portrayal of ordinary folks crushed in America during the early 20th century.
But Beah has a resilient spirit and a lyrical style all his own. Even as a multitude of wearying failures mounts, his characters retain their hopefulness in a way that’s challenging and inspiring: “We must live in radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales,” Mama Kadie tells her neighbors. “For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness. That will be our strength. That has always been our strength.”
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
RADIANCE OF TOMORROW
By Ishmael Beah
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 242 pp. $25