Fiction seems to be under attack of late. Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul has argued that the novel is dead and ”of no account” in capturing the complexities of today’s world. Magazines like The Atlantic Monthly have slashed the amount of fiction they publish. And New York Times executive editor Bill Keller last year proposed scaling back the paper’s coverage in favor of nonfiction: ”Of course, some fiction needs to be done,” he said. ”We’ll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me.”
Beasts of No Nation, the remarkable debut novella by 23-year-old Uzodinma Iweala, demonstrates why this line of thinking is wrong — about the quality of contemporary fiction in general, and specifically about its ability to represent the modern human experience. Beasts is the first-person account of Agu, a bright, churchgoing schoolboy in an unnamed African nation beset by a bloody, tribally based civil war. It could be Sudan or Rwanda or any of those African nations that we tend to understand only as abstractions. Agu’s mother and sister have been bused away from his village by U.N. peacekeepers to points unknown. When rebels attack the men left behind, he escapes — though not before watching the murder of his schoolteacher father: ”I am seeing bullet making my father to dance everywhere with his arm raising high to the sky like he is praising God.”
Agu is discovered by an itinerant battalion led by a stern, often abusive commandant, who gives the boy the choice between life as a soldier and death. Agu chooses life, and is forced to witness — and commit — horrific acts that journalists would politely dub ”ethnic cleansing.” For sweet-natured Agu, whose favorite book is the Bible (though he particularly likes David’s beheading of Goliath), the brutality around him creates a deep internal conflict. ”I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing,” he says. ”I am telling this to myself because soldier is supposed to be killing, killing, killing.”
Throughout Beasts, Iweala never wavers from a gripping, pulsing narrative voice that fits Agu’s precocious but simple background. He renders roadside massacres in stark, unsparing prose with keenly observed sensuality (”I am bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA…”). Even occasional moments of poetry (”This darkness is so full like it is my mother’s hug”) feel natural, hinting at the possibility of Agu’s redemption.
Iweala, an American-born Harvard grad who lives in both Washington, D.C., and Lagos, Nigeria, was reportedly inspired by a Newsweek article about child combatants, but the tools of nonfiction are frankly inadequate to convey the enormity and moral complexity of a life like Agu’s. (It’s worth recalling that three years ago, a journalist for The New York Times Magazine admitted creating a composite character in a piece about child laborers in Africa.) It is a credit to Iweala, and to the future of fiction, that Agu’s story is true, fundamentally true, in every way but the most superficial — he does not literally exist.