Monday, April 23, 2007

Sunday Reading: A Long Way Gone

Two weeks ago I wrote about David Eggers' epic work What is the What, and now here comes Ishmael Beah sharing the fate that Valentino Achak Deng was able to avoid: conscription into the service during an African civil war. Beah, memoir A Long Way Gone tells the harrowing story of a teenage boy who evades the rebel army in Sierra Leone for a time, only to be conscripted by the government army, which steals his childhood, but does in the end grant him the life-saving service of releasing him to the arms of a UN-sponsored halfway house. Beah's story is another frightening reminder of the precarious lives of children in war-torn Africa.
Beah's memoir can be divided into two halves. In the first, Beah escapes his coastal home of Mattru Jong along with a few friends and for a period of time manages to stay one step ahead of the rebel army. Whenever they visit villages along their journey, they are viewed suspiciously by villagers who assume they must be part of the rebel army. At least twice, Beah's life is saved by a rap cassette that he keeps in his pocket and which seems to prove that is just a playful kid, and no threat to anyone. More often, however, his life is saved by his own resourcefulness and his plain good luck. Beah and his various comrades are forced into thievery and desperation as they try to avoid starvation as well as rebel bullets.
At one point Beah comes across a bachelor he remembers from his previous life who tells Beah that his long lost family is waiting in the village below. After the other boys agree to help him with a load of bananas they begin the long hike to the village, while Ishmael dreams of the eventual reunion. However, while they rest on a hill overlooking the village, they see smoke. When they enter the village, it is chaos, with huts burning and Ishmael's parents nowhere to be found. It is here that he is conscripted. He is 14 or 15 years old.
The next phase of the book describes his experiences as a soldier. It is here that the reader is likely to feel some conflicting emotions toward the narrator. Although he is a child and has been clearly brainwashed, Beah describes participation in atrocities of war, the torture and joy-killing of enemies who, we can only assume, have been conscripted much as Beah himself has been. The horror of Beah's life is not just the war that he has witnessed and been victimized by, but that which has compromised him, metamorphosized him into a drugged, remorseless killer. One can't help but feel that one would rather die than become what Beah becomes at his worst moments.
The book is sharply written, with moments of war reporting that are vibrant and surreal. The book is at its best when it gives us the clear pictures and insights into the realities of war and its impact on a young mind trained to kill. The prose here has the cliches of war writing: the blood, the torn bodies, the last gaze into the eyes of a dying comrade. But the war reporting is made singular and perverse by the presence and description of children who have no business being in the midst of such violence. Here is one such description, taken from the first battle Beah experiences as a child soldier:
The sun showed flashes of the tips of guns and bullets traveling toward us. Bodies had begun to pile on top of each other near a short palm tree, where fronds dripped blood. I searched for Josiah. An RPG had tossed his tiny body off the ground and he had landed on a tree stump. He wiggled his legs as his cry gradually cam to an end. There was blood everywhere. It seemed as if bullets were falling into the forest from all angles. I crawled to Josiah and looked into his eyes. There were tears in them and his lips were shaking, but he could not speak. As I watched him the water in his eyes was replaced with blood that quickly turned his brown eyes into red...
The book has a happy ending, with Beah being fully rehabilitated in a UNICEF orphanage for former child soldiers. The patience shown by the staff in their attempts to salvage the lives of these young men is remarkable. Eventually, as terror strikes the heart of Freetown, Ishmael manages to escape to neighboring Guinea. Maddeningly, the book ends there without telling the reader how he got to New York and managed to write a best selling book. Maybe that story is fodder for another memoir.
There are other missed opportunities in the book. The time as a soldier seems far more compressed that the narrative of his pre-enlistment escapes. I wasn't sure about the thread of his war experiences: where he went, when, and there seemed to be holes in the story. And little is written about the outcome of the Sierra Leone civil war. The ending seemed to leave several threads untied, even with Ishmael's uncertain progress towards the U. S.
Overall, however, the story is an important one, worth reading and worth knowing about. Beah is a remarkable man.
Additional reading: Links and Excerpts
Excerpt: During Ismael's wandering time, escaping the rebel army's advance and prior to being conscripted as a government soldier:
He waited a few minutes, but the three of us didn't say anything. He continued: "Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive I feel like each time I accpet death, part of me dies. Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It wil lbe quieter than I am." Saidu blew on the palms of his hands to warm them and lay on the floor. His heavy breathing intensified and I knew he had fallen asleep. Gradually, Kanei and then Al-haji fell asleep. I sat on a wooden bench against the wall and thought about Saidu's words. Tears formed in my eyes and my forehead became warm, thinking about what Saidu had said. I tried not to believe that I too was dying, slowly, on my way to find safety. The only time I was able to fall asleep that night was when the last morning breeze, the one containing the irrestistible urge to sleep, save me from my wandering mind.
Starbuck's press release discussing their involvement with the book.
Michael Vazquez at Slate, an epistolary review.
A long article by Beah in the Times, telling his story. If you don't want to read the book, this is a good substitute.
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux has a pretty slick website to promote the book, worth visiting for the interviews with Beah.

Link to Into My Own: Sunday Reading: A Long Way Gone