In Beah novel, prosaic present & hoped-for radiance, for former child soldiers & others

radianceTimes of war are marked by yearnings for peace. The landmark 1863 Lieber Code regulating combat thus said, with reference to “nations and great governments”:

‘Peace is their normal condition; war is the exception. The ultimate object of all modern war is a renewed state of peace.’

But what “peace” means is a question that lingers after combatants put down their arms. This is a point that many thinkers have made (in a recent essay I referred to the positive v. negative peace and direct v. structural violence concepts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Galtung). And it is a point that Ishmael Beah makes, beautifully, in his just-published novel, Radiance of Tomorrow.

Beah is best known for A Long Way Gone, his 2008 memoir of child-soldiering during the 1990s civil war in his homeland, Sierra Leone. (Prior postscredit for January 2014 photo of Beah at Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta) Some child soldiers figure in the new novel, Radiance, as well. They are now veterans:

‘Children and young people came by themselves with no parents. In the beginning they came one at a time, then in pairs, followed by four, six, or more in a group. They had been at various orphanages and households that had tried to adopt them. Some had even been at centers to learn how to be “normal children” again, a phrase they detested, so they had left and become inhabitants of rough streets in cities and towns. They were more intelligent than their years and had experienced so much hardship that each day of their lives was equal to three or more years; this showed in their fierce eyes. You had to look closely to see residues of their childhood.’

beahLong after the fighting has ended, these youths and other persons of all ages return to the village of Imperi – a name that shares roots with “empire” – in “Lion Mountain,” the anglicized name for Sierra Leone. Together they try to rebuild.

But a  new force invades even as they endeavor to retie the bonds of what had been a traditional, agrarian society. It is the outside world, capitalism in the forming of a mining company. It extracts valuable minerals first from the surrounding area and eventually from the town itself. Schools and story-telling lose support as the town center fills with bars and brothels. The resting place of ancestors is dug up even as new casualties of hazardous work are buried.

The old ways will not survive. The hoped-for “radiant tomorrow” of the book’s title will occur in a new place – even in a new voice. In the novel Beah renders into English poetic phrases from his mother tongue, Mende. As he explained in the foreword:

‘For example, in Mende, you wouldn’t say “night came suddenly”; you would say “the sky rolled over and changed its sides.” Even single words are this way – the word for “ball” in Mende translates to a “nest of air” or a “vessel that carries air.”’

The technique works exceptionally well in the novel’s first part, which is rich in imagery: “the dark spots where fire had licked with its red tongue,” for example, and “the day that war came into her life.” It seems to wane as the novel unfolds, however. This erosion of prose-poetry may be intended to mimic the depletion of Imperi and its people.  The prosaic replacement may reflect the people’s new and different life – as Beah puts it in passages with which the novel begins and ends, their new story. Beah thus provides a thought-provoking answer to the post-conflict question of the meaning of peace.

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