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A Chatty, Pensive, 'Rude As A Goat's Beard' Child Soldier

A. Igoni Barrett is the author of Love Is Power, Or Something Like That: Stories.

The reign of the child soldier in African literature is over.

Now, in the aftermath of its decline, the props of the regime — as with the downfall of your common blood-and-flesh despot — are being dismantled. The discerning reader has long grown weary of dead and dying stereotypes of the modern African novel: Civil wars. Black magic. Vulture-stalked refugees. In life as in literature, the stranglehold of these banal memes on African narratives is broken.

OK. Right. That's not exactly true.

Ahmadou Kourouma's last completed novel, Allah Is Not Obliged, is a chronicle of civil wars, black magic et al. But above all it is a story of "the most famous celebrities of the late 20th century."

Yes, child soldiers.

Birahima, the "rude as a goat's beard" narrator, is around 10 years old (he isn't certain) as the novel opens. After the death of his mother in a village on the Guinean-Ivorian border, he sets off for warring Liberia — in the company of a roguish clansman called Yacouba — to find his aunt, whom he hopes to live with. In Liberia he and Yacouba are stopped at a roadblock by a troop of child soldiers, and Birahima, willingly, with the gung-ho of the child for adult games, joins the rebel faction. The adventures he goes on to survive during his monthslong campaign across Liberia and Sierra Leone fill in the plot of Allah Is Not Obliged.

What shines brightest in this novel is the voice. Ribald yet naive, contemplative and at the same time chatty, the voice of Birahima is a narrative delight. Without preamble this peculiar voice is thrust at the reader from the opening sentence: "The full, final and completely complete title of my [expletive] story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. OK. Right. I better start explaining some stuff."

If plot, as Aristotle states, is the soul of tragedy, then voice is without doubt the spirit of satire. The weightiness of the theme Kourouma tackles is counterpoised by his light touch. In his hands horror and humor become bedfellows, with effects that make this novel, for me, a heartbreaking yet laughter-filled read.

Bitter laughter many times; also sweet pangs of sadness, pity, regret; and always, always, at the end of each rereading, a sour aftertaste at the facts of history woven into the fiction. The influence of the child soldier might be herein declared ended, but the communal scars, the psychic resonances, the stock images, in literature and in life, for better or worse, remain still with us.

OK. Right.

Why should you read this book rather than the surplus of other works engaging the same subject?

Here's why: the completely complete absence of sentimentalism and exoticism in Kourouma's narrative. Better still, read it because there is so much to admire and dislike and forgive in the characters of Birahima and the other child soldiers. There is so much to learn about their cultural circumstances as well as yours, their humanity as well as yours, their wartime exploits that, Allah willing, will never be yours, never be mine.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A. Igoni Barrett
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