Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Book 37: Beasts of No Nation

By the time Beasts of No Nation was published it was the subject of mass critical acclaim.  I had read reviews that had nothing but good things to say about the novel that that it was an important work by a new author.  Because it is a novel set in Africa the first association is automatically Achebe, because any African set novel written by an African will always be compared to Achebe.  Beasts of No Nation was called a very strong debut.  I'm of two minds.  The first mind is totally and completely impressed by Iweala's work here.  He has written a brief novel with very raw power about something we in America almost never read about in fiction or non-fiction: How is it that a young man or even a boy would join one of these militia's in Africa and go on killing rampages and act as a private army?  What drives these men to do such barbaric things?  Beasts of No Nation gives us one possible answer and as brutal as the militias are to the commonly perceived victims, the brutality extends to the militia itself.  There is a veneer of a haven that the militia extends, but it is tenuous at best and Uzodinma Iweala shows all sides of the brutality where the humanity is stretched as thin as it could possibly be and still call itself human. 
My other mind is far less impressed by the actual craft of writing employed in this novel.  The book reads as if it were written in the voice of an African who does not speak English very well and so is stating things in a broken English that feels appropriate to the character and the story, but is also distracting.  Because the author is a Harvard graduate with honors for his writing, I choose to believe that the style of the novel is a conscious choice rather than his own broken English.  It is fully appropriate on one hand, but on the other it is very distracting and pulls me, as a reader, out of the story.  I would hate to suggest to an author to not use dialect because many very fine books use dialect to great effect.  In the case of Beasts of No Nation I felt the story was weakened by the overuse of dialect. 
Beasts of No Nation is, at the surface, a novel about a young man who is quite intelligent and wants nothing more than to learn and go to school.  Life does not quite go the way he would like when war comes to his country and militias start forming and roaming around attacking anyone who gets in their way.  Our protagonist gets involved in one such militia, but not because he believes in its cause.  His involvement is completely selfish: it is to save his own life.  Thus begins the examination of these roaming militias and the damage they cause to the people they come in contact to as well the people who comprise the militias. 
If I consider Beasts of No Nation in terms of the story it is telling I will quite willingly admit that it is superior.  The raw power and pain contained within the 140 pages is very real and it is a case of the story far overshadowing the storytelling.  It is the execution of the storytelling that I find fault with.  Iweala has written a very powerful novel, there is no question about that.  But the overuse of dialect was so distracting to me that I feel just a little bit of pulling back on the dialect would elevate this novel quite a bit.  Rather than simply portraying the protagonist as an intelligent and thoughtful young man who has not had nearly as much eduction as he deserves and speaks in broken sentences, it rather feels like Iweala is the one who is lacking.  I do not mean this as a personal attack because I know Iweala is a Harvard graduate and thus quite intelligent and skilled.  Considering that the protagonist would not be speaking or narrating in English during this novel, there is no reason why his thoughts wouldn't translate into full and well crafted sentences like I am positive Iweala can write given the collegiate awards he has won. 
So, Beasts of No Nation is a novel where the story rises above the manner in which it is told.  It is worth reading and Uzodimna Iweala surely has a fine career with excellent novels ahead of him, but I hope that years down the line this will be viewed as a worthy first novel and not the best he was able to produce. 

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