A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

November 22nd, 2007 at 12:57 am

I finally got around to reading this year’s highly lauded A Long Way Gone.

“Africa breaks your heart.” That’s what David Denby of The New Yorker concluded at the very beginning of his review for “Blood Diamond,” drawing on the then recent releases of “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Constant Gardener,” “And The Last King of Scotland.”

I concur, having read Ishmael Beah’s memoir relatively close on the heels of Dave Eggers’ What is the What and Beasts of No Nation. I suppose I could complete the cycle with This Voice in My Heart, and The Devil Came on Horseback, among others, but my heart is already fragile enough.

Beah’s book of tragic descent into war as a 12-year-old is striking for many reasons on several levels. It seems to be placed somewhere between Keroauc’s “On the Road” and McCarthy’s “The Road.” It illuminates an unsettling postmodern world highly influenced by drugs and western war movies. It is a road novel, but very much more about coming of age and a loss of innocence in a demented, perverse, unfortunate, shameful (I can’t stop!) modern world.

Reminiscent of the scene in Jarhead when the marines whoop and holler to Apocalypse Now, Beah relates that, “We watched movies at night. War movies, Rambo: First Blood, Rambo II, Comando, and so on, with the aid of a generator or sometimes a car battery. We all wanted to be like Rambo; we couldn’t wait to implement his techniques. When we ran out of food, drugs, ammunition, and gasoline to watch war films, we raided rebel camps, in towns, villages, and forests. We also attacked civilian villages to capture recruits and whatever else we could find.”

Beah’s prose is dominated by plain and simple descriptive language, a style that portrays one of the story’s more interesting elements: the amazing ability of people to quickly adapt. It is truly an admirable quality for a usually deficient species: “Oh. We’re being raided. Our way of life that we’ve known for years is over and our entire family is dead. We better move on.” Survival. It is captivating. Especially the way Beah shares it. He does so with simple eloquence and an appropriate and refreshing lack of sentimentality and drama that does not betray any severity and immediacy. Whereas Beasts of no Nation has a very stylized voice to accompany the similarly frenzied content, and What is the What takes a more straightforward collage-combining-Memphis Belle-esque everything goes into it approach, Long Way Gone has a very simple narrative voice and structure that realistically compliments the haunting, intense events portrayed. While this approach is abrupt, disjointed, and rough around the edges at times, it rings as absolutely authentic.

As in What is the What and Beasts of No Nation, Beah’s story is impressive in how it raises the stakes. Just when you, the reader, think things have gotten so bad that they couldn’t possibly get any worse, they do.

And it breaks your heart. All over again.

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