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|Allah is Not Obliged
Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does on earth," remarks Birahima, the narrator of Ahmadou Kourouma's remarkable new novel. It is the creed by which he endures the horrors of the life he has been born into. For Birahima is a child soldier, fighting in the wars that swept throughout western Africa in the 1990s. He grows up with his mother in the family village somewhere on the Guinean/Ivorian border. When he is 10 his mother dies and he travels to Liberia to find his aunt in the company of his uncle, a self-styled sorcerer. At a roadblock the two fall into the hands of one of the many fighting factions in the region. Birahima persuades the commander to take him on as a fighter.
Kourouma is one of Africa's pre-eminent novelists, and one of the few who has not been content to rest on his laurels. His last novel, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, published in France in 1998 and the UK in 2001, quickly became a bestseller. Allah Is Not Obliged seems almost certain to achieve the same level of distinction. Written entirely in the convincingly realised voice of Birahima, it is a powerful, shocking and deeply moving novel, an African Lord of the Flies.
Initially seduced by the status and power of the child soldiers, their insouciance and bravado, Birahima soon rises to the envied position of mascot to the warlord Papa Le Bon. But after Papa is killed, a breakaway band of soldiers and children flee. Birahima finds himself, along with the other children, moving between one warring faction and another, each led by a distinctive, colourful, sometimes female leader. To each he offers his allegiance, the decision determined by who has the best rations and newest Kalashnikovs. The children are controlled with drugs, prayer and food - child soldiers are an army's most valuable and therefore best-fed commodity - but mostly by the simple fact that the militias are the only family that they have. For these fighters, with names like Tete Brulee and Captain Kid, who squabble and shoot each other and then burst into tears, all share the same goal as Birahima: to find their family; any family.
Through Kourouma's skilful telling, the characters live on the page. He employs satire, though never stoops to stereotype, even in his depiction of the various warlords, who view the child-soldiers with expediency but also with immense sentimentality. The funeral of a child-soldier, for everybody in the camp, is a painful and grief-stricken affair.
Kourouma's style is quick and deft, employing broad brush strokes, preferring summary over scene. In places, his writing appears less than finely polished, though in this instance his hurried style lends a breathlessness to the child's narrative. Some quirks, though, can become irksome - the decision to include frequent glossary entries, even for well understood terms, in the body of the text, for example.
Kourouma's work has, in the past, incorrectly been described as magical realism. Rather, his world, though at times bizarre, is appallingly, utterly real. The belief in magic is held up for ridicule. Birahima's uncle, the sorcerer, is in fact a crook and a survivor with his eye on the main chance. When the protective "gri gris" he creates to protect the fighters from injury and even death prove useless, he blames it on them - on "user error", so to speak. Through his child's eyes Birahima sees the trickery for precisely what it is.
Although it is never made entirely clear where Birahima's village is located - Ivory Coast or Guinea -Kourouma conjures a true vision of west Africa that brings us closer to understanding recent events. In this world, imposed boundaries are of little relevance; lands are distinguished by those who inhabit them. In an instant the artificial lunacy of creating these nation states during the "scramble for Africa" becomes evident, as does the reason why the violence in Liberia spread so rapidly outwards, like sparks from a bush fire. Throughout the narrative the history of the region is deftly woven into the story.
Allah Is Not Obliged has waited five years for its English translation, too long by far. With luck it will bring Kourouma the recognition that is his due in the English-speaking world in less time than that.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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