Beasts of No Nation
Is Agu Believable?
In Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of No Nation, Agu’s diction immediately sticks out. While foreign at first, Agu’s narration quickly becomes easy to understand. The voice Iweala has created for Agu, though critical in order to convey the tragedies felt by African child soldiers, is unrealistically profound for a young boy. Thus, while Iweala has done a fantastic job of showing readers the emotions a child like Agu would feel, while doing so, he has forced Agu to think and make revelations that feel artificial. Iweala therefore included the diction as a necessary method to make Agu’s character seem more authentic; without it, the book would become too disingenuous for readers.
Agu’s storytelling, especially given his age and educational background, is unreasonably advanced and eloquent. From page one, Agu utilizes descriptive prose and similes flawlessly: “I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin… feeling my body crunched up like one small mouse in the corner when the light is coming on. (1)” This sort of account is too advanced for an approximately seven-year-old boy, especially considering the high-stress nature of the situations Agu recounts. While it’s natural to use some metaphors organically, the frequency with which Agu perfectly describes his emotions with universally understood analogies is, frankly, jarringly inauthentic. Metaphorical devices aside, the incredible detail with which Agu describes his experiences, especially those from the past, is dubious. For example, when Agu thinks back to the few days leading up to the start of the war, he details the scenes very carefully. He remembers laying down and having trouble falling asleep because “everywhere was itching too much like ant is biting me. (67).” While it’s understandable to vividly remember some specific aspects of a tragic or life-changing event, this scene is just one example of many in which Agu recalls a minute, almost irrelevant detail, and is able to come up with a relatable way to describe the feeling; even when Agu is killing a man, he’s able to “[hear] the bird flapping their wing… [and hear] the mosquito buzzing in [his] ear. (21)” Agu is quite literally killing a man for the first time at around age seven, yet he’s able to flesh out details such as the sounds the surrounding birds and bugs are making. This attentiveness, again, would certainly surprise readers.
Extending further, Agu frequently makes profound conclusions—far outstripping what a typical grown human, let alone an adolescent, could come to. While Agu is no typical child, there are several occasions in which his thinking far exceeds normalcy. After Commandant dies, Agu makes a realization: “I am wanting to be throwing gun away, but if I am throwing gun away, then Rambo will be throwing me away because gun is more important than me. (129)” At age seven, considering how slowly male brains grow, Agu would likely not have stopped to consider the worth of the gun, especially in comparison to his own self-worth. This cause-and-effect thinking Agu displays shows tremendous maturity—perhaps too much, as psychology dictates that a young man’s brain require at least a dozen more years to consistently avoid rash decisions. In addition, Agu wrestles with his own morality early in the book, justifying himself internally: “If I am doing all of this good thing and now only doing what soldier is supposed to be doing, then how can I be bad boy? (31)” Again, for a young child to be deep in self-reflection about his own morality feels inauthentic. While it’s plausible for a child to briefly consider whether or not his actions were right or wrong, it’s harder to believe that Agu would truly have pondered whether, at his core, he’s a good boy or not. Lastly, some of Agu’s musings are deeply profound: “You can be walking on road and finding that you are swimming in river. Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing. (57)” This level of thinking is akin to a philosopher, not a seven year old. To readers, statements like these spur skepticism—would Agu really think like that?
The diction and syntax Iweala implements are critical to maintaining am authentic feel in the novel. Agu is young and uneducated beyond elementary school, but he acts and thinks like someone far older. Regardless of how many horrors Agu has experienced, the level of thinking he displays is simply disingenuous. To alleviate these issues, Iweala selected a diction that showcased Agu’s inability to speak perfect English. This sort of childish syntax has, in the novel Beasts of No Nation, made it clear throughout the story that despite what Agu says, he’s still a young boy. For example, when describing Strika stepping on glass, Agu states: “Strika is stepping on piece of breaking-up bottle glass. (130)” This feels very authentic to a reader; an uneducated boy should have trouble with articles and verbs, and Agu’s struggles humanize him. In addition, Agu’s failure to say broken instead of breaking-up adds a credible feel to Agu’s character. In fact, on first glance, the way Agu speaks and thinks make it easy to pass over the wonderful prose he presents within his narration. Thus, Agu’s grammatical errors make it more believable when he describes and thinks about his life just like a full-grown novelist would (comparing an itch to a fire ant, for example). Certainly, the diction with which Agu speaks and thinks somewhat effectively obscures the advanced way he thinks and acts; without Agu’s struggles with English, readers might be too incredulous.
All in all, Iweala has created a complicated character in Agu. While Agu is, on one hand, a young child who has trouble with grammar, Agu is also a profound, mature solider. This duality is certainly hard to internalize at parts, but Iweala has done a good job with the balance. While the diction is unique and helps make Agu’s voice feel more authentic, it certainly isn’t a perfect solution; Agu’s character is simply too profound and makes revelations far beyond the abilities of any young child. However, when considering Iweala’s motivations for writing this novel – to share the accounts of child soldiers and therefore raise awareness and spread empathy – Agu’s voice becomes necessary. Iweala wanted to include as much as he could in order to encompass as broad of an experience as he could. And, though the kids likely didn’t state it outright, Iweala could see the pain in their eyes and through their body language and could therefore transfer the emotions he felt into revelations Agu made. Thus, the inclusion of discerning prose and insightful conclusions was critical to the message Iweala wanted to convey. And, in order to balance the startlingly adult-like thinking of Agu, Iweala was forced to adjust his syntax and diction—ensuring that readers remember that although Agu is only a child, his narration should be taken seriously.
Voices of No Nation
Voice, specifically one in first-person perspective, often reveals a character’s connection to his/her experiences in a text- but it is the variations in a voice that determines the character’s identity in these texts. Literary texts that discuss violence in childhood often involve exploration of these different voices in characters, because they provide insight on the environment’s effects on the characters. The novel GraceLand by Chris Abani and film Beasts of No Nation are based on violent topics such as rape, war, and child soldiers; when these topics are expressed through different voices, the result can be powerfully moving and can reveal a lot about the meaning (power? weakness?) of children’s innocence in these contexts. In the Netflix original film Beasts of No Nation, directed by Cary Fukunaga, main character Agu, a young boy from an unnamed country in Africa, is forced into a rebel group made up of child soldiers. As the war progresses, and Agu is increasingly faced with opportunities of dying, his relationship with his friend Strika and his leader, the Commandant, begin to weigh more heavily on his conscience and will to survive. In Abani’s GraceLand, main character Elvis lives in Lagos, Nigeria–a dilapidated and rapidly physically and communally deteriorating city. Elvis struggles to come into manhood in a changing society that pressures him to keep up and accept the environment he is forced into. Fukunaga and Abani’s characters display their naivety and lack of awareness in their situation by opposing means; Agu does so through internal dialogue, while Elvis literally voices his concern of his lack of knowledge of the world around him. Fukunaga and Abani achieve emotional portrayals of the character’s story of hardship and maturity through their character’s different forms of self expression and thought. The comparison of this text and film spark a discussion about two violent environments and their impact on the two main characters. The analysis of Agu’s internal dialogue and Elvis’ actions of vocal expression of his thoughts spark the questioning of how, when and why the boys choose to voice their emotions.
The use of internal dialogue to portray Agu’s thoughts and feelings on what is happening around him is a surprisingly jarring mix of ambiguity and transparency. The ambiguity lies in the many silences during the more intense scenes in the film–as shown in the scene where Agu is ordered by the Commandant to kill a man, who claims to be an innocent engineering student, for the first time. During the entirety of the Commandant’s explanation of how to kill the man, as well as when Agu is performing the act, Agu shares no thoughts with the audience. The film itself has white noise buzzing in the background, with the Commandant’s orders barely audible. Agu seems to push away his own thoughts in times where he is being brainwashed or forced into something because of his lack of control over his own life. He dismisses his power as a human being to have ideas because he realizes he no longer attains this power–his ideas have become useless to himself as well as others and he is merely being used as a pawn in a larger political issue. Though Agu seems to be entranced in his killing of the man, Agu’s actions are revealed to be forced with the Commandant’s taunting words as he stands over him: “Remember what they have taken from you. Remember your suffering and turn it into hate for them.” A mentally scarring situation such as this clearly ranges out of Agu’s control and reach of capacity to comprehend, thus explaining his lack of thought and surplus of action, as well as prove his innocence in these situations. His silence during the serious/gruesome/horrifying events that he is involved in leaves the audience clueless as to what he could possibly be thinking or feeling in those moments.
Scenes like these that essentially cut off the viewers from Agu’s mental state, leaving it ambiguous, foreshadow one of the final scenes in the film, where Agu is placed in a therapy session with a social-worker Amy. Amy pushes Agu to speak about his experiences as a child soldier, only to have him sit in silence, and the audience is finally opened to his explanation of his silence::
“She thinks that my not speaking is because I can’t be explaining myself like a baby…but I am not like baby, I am like old man, and she is like small girl, because I am fighting in war and she is not even knowing what war is.”
This quote is said in a voice over, allowing only the audience to hear. Amy pushing Agu to open up to her about his feelings parallel the audience’s desire for Agu to reveal these same elements. Agu’s failure to do so verbally, but his ability to clarify to the audience his feelings through internal dialogue reveal that the war was not the only reason as to why Agu was silent throughout the movie. Agu can’t comprehend the concept of discussing the past with others, because he can’t comprehend his past enough to even discuss it with himself.
Unlike Agu, Elvis physically voices his concerns and confusion about these situations, rather than internalizes them; he looks to other people for clarity and seeks the truth about situations he is put in. One of the opening scenes in the novel feature Elvis at 5 years old, partaking in a traditional ceremony in which a young boy becomes a man. The ceremony includes the killing of a baby eagle by the boy, and with permission from the village elders, is proclaimed a “man”. Unfortunately for Elvis, lack of resources and the dwindling spirit of traditionalism in his community force his ceremony to comprise of a pre-killed chick instead. Elvis, naive to the significance of the ceremony, rattles off multiple questions to his father and uncle: “What is happening?” “But why must I kill an eagle?” “Is this an eagle chick?” And even questions his father after he claims Elvis killed the chick, “I didn’t,” to which his father replies “You did.” The overflow of inquiries coming from Elvis illustrate how Elvis is unable understand what the purposes of the ceremony entail. Similar to Agu’s first experience with killing, Elvis only carries out the ceremony because he is pressured to do so by forces greater than himself, and both characters are in an environment where they must submit to these forces simply because their society is set up that way. Elvis’ questioning of his society is because of the similar feeling Agu has, where he is being brainwashed by people, such as his father and the elders, to believe that “tradition” carries on, and the next generation’s purpose is to continue this, rather than form their own thoughts and ideas about them. Elvis’ continuity of outspoken questioning foreshadows the failure of his society’s set up, where the verbalizing of new ideas and the creation of conversation about them is becoming more prevalent.
The feeling of not understanding the life you live in is unsettling and, especially to children, is an essential part of discovering who you are as a person and what role in life you are going to play: what voice you will have in society. Elvis, struggles with this throughout GraceLand and while Agu is given a “purpose” in his life (to be a soldier) and chooses internal dialogue to accompany this new life he has been thrust into, Elvis has a more difficult time pinpointing what voice he wants to have, and instead mimics ones similar to other characters in the novel such as the King, his mentor. Elvis is apart of a society that does not physically choose the “fate” of others, like in Agu’s world, however it does subliminally pressure people, specifically men, to fall into certain categories, and Elvis feels this underhanded pressure throughout the novel, when two important people in his life, the King and Redemption, have opposing ideas on how he should participate in society. Elvis’ mentor, the King, the neighborhood beggar, plays an influential role in this dilemma. In a bar, Elvis listens to the King give a speech about politics and the necessity to overthrow the current government. Elvis is amazed by the King’s deliverance of his speech, but catches himself getting distracted by music that is playing nearby. This proves he is more focused on the theatrics of the King’s speech, and sees it as a performance rather than an attempt at a political revolution. The King’s attitude in this context, one that is outspoken and sure of himself, may be a contribution to the outspoken tendencies Elvis has himself, as his way of emulating the kind of man he wants to be seen as. This attitude gets put to the test whenever he comes into contact with his friend, Redemption, who is the complete opposite of Elvis in the way that he does not want to flesh out the truths of situations, and would rather turn a blind eye to it entirely. When Redemption proposed to Elvis the opportunity to partake in a sketchy job offered as an “escort” by even sketchier drug dealers, Elvis is dubious of taking the job because of the lack of information given to him about it. Elvis tells him, “Why should I trust you when you want me to take a risk without telling me the whole story?”, in which Redemption responds “Only a dead man tells everything, only a fool asks.” This response is what catalyzes a full blown argument between the two friends, and is strong evidence that Elvis clearly wants to be aware and in control of his life, like the King attempts to teach him (and attempts to do so by voicing his concerns in a theatrical way) but he is held back by people in his society who live their lives based off of blindly making decisions as a way to cope with the violence in the city they reside.
Agu’s filtering of bad situations exclusive to him through internal dialogue, contrast to Elvis, who only digests and speaks out on dangerous or bad situations that he is solely involved in. He discovers this about himself when Redemption exposes this trait, after Elvis expresses concern about his cousin, whom he hasn’t spoken of in years, but is only reminded of her when he sees a woman that resembles her, “Dis Elvis, you dey very selfish…When it concerns you, nothing is true…Instead you try to carry yourself as if nobody can understand you.” Redemption describes Elvis’ individualistic mentality to be “selfish”, however Elvis continues to use this mentality as a way of sorting out difficult decisions he needs to make. Agu’s character seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum, with little to no thoughts concerning himself specifically. This could be a mix of the fact that his lethal “job” as a child soldier doesn’t allow him to believe that he as an individual has a purpose, as shown in the scene where the NDF is raiding a village and, in a voice over, Agu says “My gun is marking on my hand. I am servant to be doing whatever it says.” The scene of the NDF firing at the hysterical villagers creates a terrifying sense of comradery, forcing Agu to believe that he is a member of the group, rather than an individual in the army. The voice in Agu’s head merely serves as objective dictation, with his eyes as the lens the scene is dictated from, and is dictated totally in the present-tense. Agu uses the present-tense narrative in contexts where he feels that his soul is intact, but not connected with the actions that his body- not his mind- is making. Agu separates himself as a human being from the context when doing this, thus filtering out the severity of the situation, making himself only a part of the fixed picture, rather than one who is an active component being affected by it.
Both Agu and Elvis are young boys living lives dominated by violence- this brutal reality is out of their control and they seek to find ways to cope with the cards they were dealt. Agu’s position as a child soldier leaves him nearly no room to freely ask questions about his surroundings the way Elvis does, but it is rare that he even asks questions in the solace of his own mind. And though his internal dialogue adds personal and intimate qualities to the context, it prevents Agu from absorbing any of the stimuli surrounding him and only when the Commandant is at his weakest is Agu able to stand up for himself. Elvis, on the other hand, is rarely seen internalizing thoughts without seeking advice from or venting to someone else in his life. Agu’s habit of being in his own head negatively affects his mental state in a similar way to how Elvis’ lack of inner dialogue negatively affects his mental state. These two different ways digesting their surroundings both effectively demonstrate the boy’s naivety compared to those controlling them. These ways also make sense in the contexts the boys are in: Agu is restricted by the rebel army to literally say what he is feeling because of the deadly repercussions this may cause, and Elvis is in a changing modernizing city that allows him to physically voice questions and concerns he has (though even this has its limits from the government) but Elvis runs into more trouble finding his place in a city where people continuously turn a blind eye to reality, whereas he craves answers to questions of why things are the way they are for him. His society’s perspective of questioning life rely on the idea of their lives being predetermined by “fate”. Elvis struggles to find his place and purpose. This comparison of Agu and Elvis reveal completely opposite sides of the coin in terms of children’s abilities and the contradicting methods they choose to cope with traumatizing experiences.