Friday, 15 July 2011

allah is not obliged [ahmadou kourouma]

Child soldiers and depravity. The paradox of the image of the beguiling kid toting a machine gun or in the words of Birahima, the book's narrator, a 'kalash', is one that forms part of the iconography of post-colonial Africa. Birahima is one of them, and Kourouma's novel gives the image a voice.

It's a voice, steeped in slang, which is sparky, wilful and provocative. Never depressed or even world-weary, Birahima cheerfully recounts the things he's seen. In a world of never-ending savagery, the only perspective to take is one of grim irony, and, where necessary, avoidance. As Birahima wanders West Africa, from Liberia to the Ivory Coast to Sierra Leone, he confronts death on a regular basis. To offer some kind of testament to the child soldiers whose lives have been dispensed with so lightly, he offers up a sequence of 'funeral orations'. In a few paragraphs he outlines how they came to end up dying in the manner they did. But there are moments where he's clear about where to draw the line: what the reader gets is not the full horror, for there are many things that Birahima knows but refuses to disclose. What we do learn is bad enough, even if it's leavened by his Birahima's relentless optimism.

To what extent the book really captures the thoughts of a child soldier is hard to tell. Kourouma's book is also an acerbic attack on the warlords and corrupt politicians who squabble over the lands and the riches of West Africa. Doe, Taylor, Abache, among others, all make appearances, and chapter five is given over to a potted history of events in Kourouma's home country of Sierra Leone. it makes for a scathing introduction to the venal mess created in that part of the world, a writer's counterblast to the machinations of people with power. The book's narrative is episodic, as Birahima wanders around the killing fields in the company of the grigriman, Yacouba, moving from the band of one warlord to another as he searches for his aunt. It may be that it's impossible to convey the reality of the child's mind, and at times the book's central character becomes secondary to the writer's desire to let the reader know about the politics; but somehow the connections stack up and Allah is Not Obliged, in spite of or because of its haphazard narrative, is a powerful reminder of the way in which literature or art alone can offer a voice to the voiceless; can counterpoint the brutal realities of politics with the actuality of what it means to live beneath the yoke of politics.

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