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Sunday, 15 January 2017

Song for Night

He who has a why? to live for can bear almost any how? – Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Maxims and Arrows,’ Twilight of the Idols


In an interview on NPR in 2007 Chris Abani said:

[M]y understanding of the world is that the most sublime things co-exist with the most devastating things in every context, in every culture, in every situation. And what transforms the world is not the denial of those things, but it's actually the recuperation of them, literally, through love. And not love in a sense of the Hallmark Card situation, but as a force that sort of ensures obligation. It's almost a primordial human nature, this compelling thing that makes us want to be better, that want to connect with other people, and that we can see how oftentimes that it's the transformation. It's the transfiguration of things that seem dead or ugly into things that can become beautiful and sublime that there is never despair. There's always only the subtle movements of hope through our lives.

This is what Abani hopes his readers will take away from his novella Song for Night which on one level tells the story of a fifteen-year-old soldier’s trek to rejoin his platoon; on another it’s a spiritual journey through Nigeria, a coming to terms with what he has become. The book opens as follows:

What you hear is not my voice.

I have not spoken in three years: not since I left boot camp. It has been three years of a senseless war, and though the reasons for it are clear, and though we will continue to fight until we are ordered to stop—and probably for a while after that—none of us can remember the hate that led us here. We are simply fighting to survive the war. It is a strange place to be at fifteen, bereft of hope and very nearly of your humanity. But that is where I am nonetheless. I joined up at twelve. We all wanted to join then: to fight. There was a clear enemy, and having lost loved ones to them, we all wanted revenge.

He’s not taken a vow of silence; he’s not been struck dumb by the things he’s witnessed; no, the reason he’s not spoken in three years is much simpler and far more shocking:

A week before graduation [our commander] took us all into the doctor’s office. One by one we were led into surgery. It was exciting to think that we were becoming bionic men and women. I thought it odd that there was no anaesthetic when I was laid out on a table, my arms and legs tied down with rough hemp. […] I stared at the peculiar cruel glint of the scalpel while the doctor, with a gentle and swift cut, severed my vocal chords. The next day, as one of us was blown up by a mine, we discovered why they had silenced us: so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams. Detecting a mine with your bare toes and defusing it with a jungle knife requires all your concentration, and screams are a risky distraction.

The boy, as you might have gathered, is a mine diffuser:

Our job is to clear roads and access routes of mines. Though it sounds simple, our job is complicated because the term access routes could be anything from a bush track to a swath cut through a rice paddy. Our equipment is basic: rifles to protect against enemy troops, wide-blade machetes for clearing brush and digging up the mines, and crucifixes, scapulars, and other religious paraphernalia to keep us safe.

Needless to say the “crucifixes, scapulars, and other religious paraphernalia” do a very poor job and when the boy’s story begins he’s coming to after another of his team’s been blown up. He finds himself unexpectedly alone:

[P]rotocol demands that we count the dead and tally the wounded after each explosion or sweep. Stupid fools. Wait until I catch up with them, I will chew them out; protocol is all that’s kept us alive.

Alone, probably in enemy territory, he has to orient himself, decide where his unit will have headed and do his best to catch them up. If only to chew them out. As he travels and tries to avoid capture, booby-traps and wild animals he starts to tell us his story, about his father, the Imam, how his mother kept him safe in the ceiling, how they both died, why he joined up, his first kill, his first rape. He’s an intelligent boy from the city “not like one of the village fools that hung around us and were baffled by the simplest things like how to open the occasional sardine tins we were lucky to get with the strange-shaped keys—especially as the tins didn’t have keyholes” but still is easily charmed at the start. Three years on the scales have fallen from his eyes but what else does he have?; his comrades are his family. A particular amusing incident he describes—the book is not without humour—is where the troops get shown “American Information Films that looked like they had been shot a hundred years ago.” One of these shows what to do in the event of a nuclear attack—hide under a desk. He has three problems with this:

    1. Where would we find desks in this war?
    2. Would the army provide them and would we have to carry them around ourselves?
    3. Why would anyone hide from a fireball under a wooden desk?

None of that matters now. Only one thing, to get back with his pack, with what’s left of his pack; there have been losses, most notably Ijeoma, the only girl and his rock.

The boy, named My Luck by the way, is an Igbo, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. Most are Christians and most of them Catholic so when My Luck’s father converts to Islam it doesn’t go down well. As the boy says, “I will never know why my father chose that path; one that put him outside his own community, his own people … and made him a thing that the people who would later become our enemies feared: a hybrid.” His mother does not convert. His grandfather tells him about the myths and legends of his people’s past. So he has well-rounded, if somewhat confusing and conflicted, ontological views.

A constant throughout the book is the river. Obviously when navigating you stick close to landmarks you can identify and the simple fact is communities are drawn to rivers for all sorts of practical reasons; if he needs resources or information he needs to find people or at least where people have been. The river in question is called the Cross. It’s the main river in southeastern Nigeria and gives its name to Cross River State. The origins of the name, however, are murky:

There are many tales about how the Cross got its name. There are always many tales here, Grandfather said. Don’t trust any of them, he always cautioned. Trust all of them, he warned.

This is typical of his grandfather who’s always saying things like “Why put the ocean into a coconut?” in place of more straightforward and helpful answers. On his travels My Luck encounters an old man called Peter who’s been living off bananas for years since he’s too old to hunt:

“Why is this river called the Cross?” I ask [using sign language], since I can’t put my finger on what is bothering me.

“Because we all have to cross it someday,” he replies.

I shake my head. Why can’t old people ever answer a question without using a riddle?

The simple fact is he can’t escape the river and it begins to take on a greater significance than simply a geographical marker. Could there be more going on here? He’s pretty sure he’s concussed from the bomb blast and that certainly would account for some of his confusion but not everything. He thinks he sees ghosts. Others act as if he’s a ghost or a demon; Peter even makes a sign on the ground and has My Luck step over it before he’ll engage with him. The colonists might have changed many things when they arrived but old fears die hard.

In the 1980 film Breaker Morant Major Thomas, a defence lawyer assigned to defend three soldiers accused of war crimes, tells the court as part of his closing monologue:

The fact of the matter is that war changes men's natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations. Situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death.

This is so true of My Luck. There are several scenes in the book one could describe as tragic and how do you pick the most tragic? The first time he rapes a woman is a hard one. His commander orders him do it. He’s the only boy in the troop who hasn’t at this point:

“Rape or die,” he said, and I knew he meant it. As I dropped my pants and climbed onto the woman, I wondered how it was that I had an erection. Some part of me was enjoying it and that perhaps hurt me the most. I entered the woman and strangely she smiled. I moved, and as much as I wanted to pretend, I couldn’t lie, I enjoyed it. The woman’s eyes were tender, as if all she saw was a boy lost. She stroked my hair tenderly, whispering as I sobbed: “It’s all right son, it’s all right. Better the ones like you live.”

Worse happens—some he’s involved in, other stuff he just witnesses—but no one could be expected to go through it and not be changed. You hear stories about me who’ve been to war who won’t talk about their experiences even many years later. It’s not hard to understand why.

Any other book that dealt with the life experiences of a twelve-to-fifteen-year-old-boy would probably be called a bildungsroman. Reading this book, however, forces us to completely reassess an expression like “coming of age”. What we have to keep in mind too is, in Igbo culture, boys come of age between nine and twelve so My Luck would have already been viewed as a man when he joined the army even if he hadn’t gone through any formal ceremony. In many respects Song for Night might arguably be described as an “anti-” or failed coming-of-age story; given the job he’s been assigned death was only ever a matter of time and, as we’ve read, at least one of his comrades never even survived basic training.

Oddly this isn’t an especially political book. The rightness or wrongness of the war or even war in general is not debated. Abani is more interested in psychological truths, for example, as My Luck’s story reaches its end he finds himself asking: “If we are the great innocents in this war, then where did we learn all the evil we practise? ... Who taught me to enjoy killing, a singular joy that is perhaps rivalled only by an orgasm?” It’s the same sort of question he’s forced to face during that first rape.

In an interview on Truthdig, Albani says, “Much of Africa is presented through poverty, through drought and war. [But] you’re not presenting people, you’re not presenting countries, you’re not presenting complexity, and so people can’t care about an amorphous mass called Africa.” What we care about are individuals. Look at someone like Malala Yousafzai.

The only problem I really had with the book was the language. We know My Luck’s an intelligent boy who went to school up until he was twelve. Well I was an intelligent twelve-year-old and there’s no way I would’ve used some of the words he uses in day-to-day conversation. It’s a minor gripe overall but it bothered me enough to mention it.

This is a difficult book but it’s not unnecessarily graphic. The boy describes what he sees and is honest about what he’s done. The war’s changed him but has it ruined him? I don’t want to give away the ending but a word that crops up in other reviews is “sentimental” and, perhaps, it is. If you can look beyond that it raises the question of just what it might take to transmute empathy into true understanding.

Further Reading

Homogenization is a Mother Goddess Swallowing Up Difference
Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other
Apparitions of Planetary Consciousness in Contemporary Coming-of-Age Narratives: Reimagining Knowledge, Responsibility and Belonging
The storyteller function in contemporary Nigerian narrative
The Child Soldier’s Soliloquy. Voices of a New Archetype in African Writing
The Amalek Factor: Child Soldiers and the Impossibility of Representation

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