This is not a recommendation, necessarily.
Amazon recommended this book based on other apparently depressing purchases I made. It’s the last complete novel by Kourouma, “one of Africa’s most celebrated writers” (back cover), who spent much of his life being educated or in exile in the west. Kourouma died before completing a follow-up novel to this one and I am dying to read whatever he left. Seriously. So maybe this is a recommendation of sorts.
The title, which intrigued me, comes from a saying of the protagonist, Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. I can gel with that. Life is not fair. God is not fair and is not obliged to be, no matter what we wish.
However, my experience of god not being fair and Birahima’s experience are wildly different in scale. Birahima was born to a mother who caught some sort of wasting disease following her circumcision, which took place in the woods at the hands of a excisor along with all of the other village girls her age. She scoots along the floor of their hut with one leg in the air, as he describes it, her butt bumping along the ground, her second leg a rotting stump. And still his father fathered two children on her and she remarried, but to a man who could not impregnate her because he did not learn the trick of doing so, Birahima tells us.
He tells us the story of his life as a street kid then a child soldier. In the process he tells us more than we really want to know about what is going on in Africa and his view of the West’s role in those goings-on. He leaves the Ivory Coast in search of his aunt, who is to care for him after his mother’s death, but is caught in the Nigerian civil war and impressed into service as a child soldier. He kills innocents, mourns fallen comrades, loses most of his sexual innocence to a commander’s wife, and decides to tell his story with the help of Larousse, Petit Robert, and Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa.
Birahima, as children do, tells the blunt truth, but, because he is no longer a true child, the truth he tells is searingly painful. He is a translator from native languages to French, from African cultures to the reader. Parentheticals proliferate as he explains customs or defines words and phrases. Over and over we hear that human skulls mark the borders of the camps of tribal warlords. The first time we are horrified. After several repetitions for several warlords’ camps, however, we are no longer surprised and the explanation has become so routine as to be unnecessary. Dehumanization. As a Western reader, I felt the horror of imagined life under such brutality alongside the guilt of the colonizer. Birahima does not point fingers. He relates religious figures who have sex with nuns and female prisoners while demanding virginity from the child soldiers without any judgment. He gives the history of the Liberian president, who engineered a coup with a partner, then, paranoid, engineered a coup against his partner under cover of democratic elections, and who was finally murdered by pieces (literally) by a warlord who preached an end to the violence and whose passion the born-again peacenik president believed too soon–all without judgment. These are just facts.
So, too, this parenthetical: “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.”
The last pages of the novel are filled with names and political details that I found hard to follow. Perhaps I was just weary from so much brutality and so much corruption. Perhaps this is how the citizens of Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, feel. Numbed to the causes because so shaken by the consequences.
Birahima escapes the last bout of violence, but, other than the fact that he survives to tell his story, Kourouma does not let us know that he lives happily ever after. Rather, the ins and outs of his tale suggest quite otherwise. But I would so like to know what he wanted to tell us about this young man in that last unfinished novel. Not because I want to hear more of the horrors, but because my pampered western soul longs from a redemptive story, some happy ending to make sense of or give him in all of the loss surrounding.