As a rule I avoid books about war or calamity written from the perspective of child protagonists, in part because this viewpoint leads to oversimplification of complex events and in part because such books are almost always sentimental or precious. I chose this book, told from the perspective of a preteen boy who becomes a child soldier, both for the West African setting (it is set in Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, but the largest chunk takes place in Liberia, so I'm using it as my challenge book for that country) and for the authentic, conversational, foul-mouthed and entirely unsentimental voice. This is the book’s strongest quality, one that’s even more impressive given that this is a translation (you’d never know it without being told; I’d love to be able to sample the French original and see how it compares). Here’s a taste:
“The dead child-soldier was called Kid, Captain Kid. Now and again in his beautiful song, Colonel Papa le Bon chanted ‘Captain Kid’ and the whole cortege howled after him ‘Kid, Kid’. You should have heard it. They sounded like a bunch of retards.”
“The same goes for me. I don’t have to talk, I’m not obliged to tell my dog’s-life-story, wading through dictionary after dictionary. I’m fed up talking, so I’m going to stop for today. You can all fuck off!”
The dictionaries are an odd conceit: our narrator, Birahima, uses four dictionaries to look up French and African words and explain them as he goes. Occasionally these “explanations” are in the form of sardonic jabs (“‘Humanitarian peacekeeping’ is when one country is allowed to send soldiers into another country to kill innocent victims in their own country, in their own villages, in their own huts, sitting on their own mats.”), but most of the time he’s simply defining words most readers will already know (“Every morning he went to the temple and officiated. ‘Officiate’ is a big word that means ‘to conduct a religious ceremony’, that’s what it says in my Larousse.”).
One might wonder how Birahima comes to use these words at all if he doesn’t know them (perhaps the entire conceit is meant to highlight the way African fiction tends to explain itself to a foreign audience, by turning the tables on us), but that question pales beside the fact that well before the halfway point, Birahima virtually abandons his own story and never fully returns to it. Instead, most of the second half the book is taken up by a history lesson on the warfare in Liberia and Sierra Leone, interspersed with anecdotes about the backstories of other child soldiers and about various larger-than-life men and women who take part in the wars. Unfortunately, we don’t see Birahima interact with these other characters; the stories he tells about his friends end with their becoming child soldiers, and in a way his own does too, even though that occurs early in the book. We never do get to read about the day-to-day lives of child soldiers or how they interact with one another.
One could rationalize that a real child soldier would be reluctant to tell his story, and would talk about other things instead, and maybe that's what Kourouma was trying to accomplish, though I'm not convinced a real child soldier would give us dozens of pages of history lessons either. Regardless, I picked up this novel hoping to read a story, and got a book that started out promisingly but grew increasingly disjointed and never did tell that story. Disappointing.