Swans Commentary » swans.com December 1, 2008  



Death Singing
Chris Abani's Song For Night


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Abani, Chris: Song For Night, Telegram Books, London, 2008, ISBN: 978-1-84659-057-3, 158 pages, 7.99 pounds UK. (First published in the U.S. by Akashic Books, New York, in 2007)


If we are the great innocents in this war, then where did we learn all the evil we practice? (Page 135)


(Swans - December 1, 2008)   A boy asleep floats down the Cross River in a canoe. Before he found the craft he passed through the enemy by clinging to one of the many corpses floating with the current. He's 15, a veteran killer, and alone with his gun. Welcome to Huckleberry Finn of the third millennium.

The boy is in rags and exhausted. He's trying to rejoin his platoon, a gang of other boys like him with nothing left but the pack instinct. The boy hasn't even his voice left. His vocal chords were snipped as part of his professional training as a human mine detector. If he screamed getting blown up, he would disrupt operations.

The canoe hits the bank. The boy wakes up. A face is devouring him with its eyes. It's a look he has never seen before and won't forget. Food for nightmares. The eyes are considering his worth as a corpse. His will to live kicks in. The eyes back off. They belong to a woman with a long hooked pole. She lives by looting the river's bounty of dead.

He has gunned down many like this woman. But now he gets away from her and hurries toward the forest. He will also remember that other look on her face as he departs. It's almost a smile and meant to placate a live soldier with an AK-47.

The novella of Chris Abani, Song For Night, tells a frightening story of how men destroy their humanity through violence. The author is Nigerian, now living and teaching in California. At sixteen he published a political fiction about an imaginary uprising in Nigeria. When in 1985 a coup actually took place, he was arrested and accused of having drawn the blueprint of the uprising in his novel. The charge was preposterous, though in fact his whole generation of privileged, Western-influenced youth, opposed Nigeria's dictators. Abani, eighteen, would be in and out of jail till 1991. He was tortured and sent to death row on an accusation of treason. His jailers threw him in solitary for six months when he objected to their murder of a thirteen-year-old prisoner. The boy was left to bleed to death with his hands tied behind him and his penis nailed to a table.

Books about African child soldiers now fill a long shelf. Who would object, considering the enormity of the plague? Critics have been musing for years over what Joseph Conrad's character Kurtz, dying beside the Congo River, meant by his last words: "The horror!" Now we know. The child-soldier books quite naturally began by exposing the unspeakable. They gave personal testimony to what we were seeing on international TV: Drugged ten-year-olds struggling to lift their Uzis; other kids with their limbs chopped off for breaches of discipline. Abani told a comfortable California gathering how his English mother tried to get her five Nigerian children out of a war zone. A guard at the airport leveled his gun, wanting to take Abani's nine-year-old brother to make him a soldier.

Children at War (2006) by P.W. Singer surveyed the subject. There are 300,000 child soldiers around the world. Some 43% (157 of 366) of all armed organizations involved in fifty conflicts use children. But it's individual testimony that has come in a flood. Grace Akallo tells her story (with Faith J.H. McDonnell) in Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda Children (2007). A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007) by Ishmael Beah speaks of Sierra Leone. Alcinda Honwana's Child Soldier in Africa (2007) concerns Angola and Mozambique. Similar accounts of personal experience keep coming: God Grew Tired of Us: A Memoir by John Bul Dau, about Sudan, appeared in 2008.

In What is the What? (2006), Dave Eggers made a novel of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese. (See review in Swans, January 1, 2008.) Eggers tucked away events in Deng's memory and dwelt on his life after the turmoil. This step back from direct experience toward literary distillation made sense. Abani has said that after leaving prison, it was five years before he could talk about what happened to him. With Song For Night he isn't reporting but letting the facts scorch us as poetry. He has long since turned his back on political rhetoric. In a talk he noted how after prison, his attitude toward the dictators had changed. Any sort of self-affirmation had left him. He saw the political problem in its purity, free of himself. Now he has taken a step farther. He's looking into the humanity that violence destroys in us. Is it lost forever?

To answer, Abani needs a stage and a spokesman and sets a teenage soldier in a war zone. As we have seen, the boy is mute. His vocal cords have been cut to make him a perfect disposer of mines. But a mute can hardly deliver poetry. Remember Faulkner's "idiot" Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury? He thought in such basic language we had to look to the other characters to see him in depth. James Joyce also sometimes puzzled the reader by mimicking actual speech. Abani doesn't aim at that kind of realism. "What you hear is not my voice," says his boy soldier.

That voice will be unrealistically articulate and entirely interior. The boy's monologue touches on what he sees, thinks, and imagines on his solitary wandering, which is also a voyage from one past trauma to another. The language is smoother and denser than any real fifteen-year-old's talk. His ruminations can sound like a deathbed meditation. The flotsam of American popular culture bobs up in the flow. Abani, who has written a novel called Graceland, notes elsewhere that his own generation in Nigeria was penetrated by odds and ends of US pop.

The boy Abani has liberated from work-a-day realism will dig at his memories, hallucinate and drift in and out of dreams as he picks his way toward what he likes to think of as safe territory. His senses could not be more in touch with place; the Africa of things sears the reader. The situation is not unlike that in the recent novel, The Road. (See review in Swans, Nov. 19, 2007.) But Cormac McCarthy is an Irish-American Puritan demonstrating his do-it-yourself skills, whereas Chris Abani is an African who knows that the sensual is often the best resource for not lying down in a heap and dying. At the same time he sees the tricks of getting through the day and its brute events as the mere context of his poetry and moral self-enquiry.

My Luck is the boy's name bestowed by his mother who foresaw she would die protecting him. We are taken into his confidence when he's fifteen. An Igbo, he joined up at twelve, inspired by hate. The enemy had butchered his loved ones. But after fighting three years he has no hate for the enemy left, or hope for himself, or much humanity either. Now, like the other boys, he would fight until ordered to stop "and probably for a while after." At this point the object of their fighting is simply to outlive the war.

An adequate description of Song For Night is of course impossible. That's why it took the form of a novella: the story itself, as told, is its explanation. As the boy proceeds on and along the river, he encounters other solitaries, old haunts, glimpses of the enemy. His instinct for survival and the skills he learnt in boot camp cling to him like a bad habit or vice and carry him along. But in himself he's lame, depleted, fragile; beneath his callousness, he's full of guilt and yearning. It's as if he thirsts for a "normal" moral landscape where human-sized sin can exist and be redeemed. The war, making beasts of everyone, has destroyed the dimension in which men can live and suffer as men.

Time is scrambled. Memories come out of order. The novella holds them together in a light, artful web of words. Key scenes jolt the boy time and again. Awash in his own smell, he's crouched in the crawl space above his mother's room. The enemy came for the males but killed her anyway, taking their time. Then he's a soldier led by a cruel officer. The platoon comes upon a bombed-out church. A European priest is bustling about trying to salvage some statuary. A seven-year-old girl-child runs to the soldiers. The officer takes her up comfortingly like a parent. When he puts her down, he announces, "I'll have her." The boy opens up with his AK-47. But killing the officer he also kills the child. The other boys in the platoon make him their leader, a replacement for the officer. The promotion means he will now direct the slaughter.

In My Luck's stunned awakening to what he's done, consolation comes from a girl soldier his age, Ijeoma -- in Igbo, Good Life. She's his partner in adolescent affection. So friendship and love aren't entirely absent, but hidden in the folds of this horrendous civil war. The author tells us that the couple makes love. What comes across strongly is the iconic role Ijeoma has for My Luck. The girl offered him wisdom, help, and protection before a mine kills her at fourteen. To summon the strength to go on, My Luck continues to conjure her up in memory, much as he does his dead mother, also a figure of generosity and sacrifice. In fact the two women merge in a feminine aura that forms a delicate counterpoise to the surrounding barbarity.

This emphasis on the importance of women, while not all that prevalent in African writers, strongly marks Abani's work. He personally clashed with a harsh father -- a high official under the Nigerian dictators -- and had a strong, resourceful mother. She brought a Protestant rigor with her when she converted to her husband's Catholicism. Similarly, My Luck's father only tolerated the boy's crocheting along with his mother because it helped him learn verses of the Qur'an. This obstinate man decided to be not only a Muslim but an imam under Christian noses. After his murder, an uncle married My Luck's mother, and insisted the boy toughen up. Hatred between the son and stepfather was mutual. My Luck was empathetic listening to his aunt give a graphic account of her miscarriage. When Abani's mother's explained the intricacies of birth control to Nigerian women, he, scarcely ten, served as her interpreter, discussing their private parts with the listeners.

Both My Luck and Abani seem to have come out of their brushes with official religion full of respect for an older African spirituality. The boy tells us: "I realize that nothing I know of the world came from my Catholic mother or my Muslim father. All I know comes from the stories Grandfather told me." The old man was rooted in an Igbo past that was "older than Job" and remote from the current war between the two great monotheisms. He spoke of a female deity. "Grandfather always said that believers are like unschooled children holding on to the essence of a truth merely because they have spoken it." Come from a land made hell by clashing ethnicities and their faiths, Abani himself has risen above all sectarianism.

Guilt and soldiering combine badly in My Luck's head, surely a result of being made a soldier at twelve. He sleeps but finds no rest. When he wakes he feels his forearm. He calls it his calendar. The cuts he makes soon swell up with scar tissue. Each healed lump means something. There are, for instance, the people he most enjoyed killing. He feels the first lump. It's his uncle-stepfather. The second is his hated officer. But the third he can't pass over quickly. It's the one that keeps him from rest. The platoon laden with fresh arms was hungry. They came to a deserted village and burst into a hut that showed smoke. Several old women were sitting about very still. My Luck with rough politeness gestured for food. One old woman waived him towards the fire where meat was roasting, and then sharply looked away. My Luck reached out to break off a piece. He saw the tiny hand and then the skull of an infant. Leaping backward he raised his rifle and shot the old woman. The others scurried out. It wasn't the death of the old woman that kept him from rest. It was the skull of the baby.

The mine disposers went first, up with the scouts. My Luck didn't mind because it meant you had first choice at looting, or, if you died, it was quick. He pitied the clean-up crew that brought up the rear:

Counting the dead is not easy. It is rare to die intact in a war. Bullets and shrapnel from mines and mortars and shells can tear a body to pieces. An arm here, a leg over there in the foliage - all of which have to be retrieved and assembled into the semblance of a complete body before there can be a count. The worst thing about this job may be the irreconcilable maths of it: Many of the parts don't add up. This is the enemy's cruelty - that much of the generation who survive this war will not be able to rebuild their communities. Even now it is not uncommon to run across groups of these half-people holding onto life in distant parts of the forest. Even the enemy soldiers spare these pitiful creatures when they come across them.

I remember a group I saw once. Children without arms or legs or both, men with only half a face, women with shrapnel-chewed scars for breasts - all of them holding onto life and hope with a fire that burned feverishly in their eyes. If any light comes from this war, it will come from eyes such as those. (Page 40)

"After three years of civil war nothing is strange anymore." And we come to understand that the roving boy has no other attachment to the real world than has his phantom platoon of other lost boys. As he takes shelter in dreams and mirages we begin to feel that he will never again be united with them or with anyone. Indeed he may well be already dead, his survival instinct keeping him moving, "probably for a while after," like a chicken with a wrung neck. Both as an individual and an author, Chris Abani is well worth knowing. His Song For Night is a beautiful novella, but not meant for the complacent.


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Published December 1, 2008