Beasts of No Nation lives in the space between realism and allegory. Uzodinma Iweala’s original novel approaches that space but seems far less concerned with it, narrated entirely by the young central character, Agu, in his simplistic present-tense dialect. A child soldier in West Africa, Agu’s journey in the novel is one of survival. His family is killed, and to avoid being killed himself he accepts an offer to join the army of the Commandant, a rebel warlord. At first he declares “I am not wanting to fight”; eventually, though, Agu is killing with knives and guns, willfully attacking “enemies”, tearing through his war-stricken country at the whim and call of the Commandant.
Everything about the novel is heartbreaking, but nothing more so than the sense that Agu is too young to realize that his journey across his country is also a descent into hell. The first-person narration is one that nonetheless conveys the bare minimum about Agu’s own thoughts and feelings about his actions, and yet at times it conveys more than enough. “I am liking it” — this is what Agu says about the sound of his knife hitting a woman’s head, about the splashing blood. It’s brutal in how direct it all is, in its impossibility and in its plausibility. Iweala never has to name the West African country or convince us that someone like Agu really exists; Agu very definitely does.