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There was intense discussion over Ishmael Beah’s book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier when it was released two years ago. However, I didn’t read it until this autumn after my friend recommended it. I’m not the kind of person who is always up to date with literature – I often read books a year or two after they’re released. Sometimes I reproach myself of being so sluggish. Anyway, I’m not sure whether up-to-dateness is a relevant criterion for interesting or significant literature.
Beah’s autobiographical novel is hard. I can’t remember reading about violence this shocking ever before. The brutalities are especially disturbing because there are children on both sides of the violent acts. Beah fought for the army of Sierra Leone against guerrilla fighters in the civil war that was levied between 1991 and 2000. The novel describes in a realistic way how easy it is to brainwash and train traumatized children into cold-blooded butchers with the use of simple psychology and drugs.
Beah was saved by Unicef’s intervention and treatment. According to Unicef there are currently about 300 000 child soldiers fighting in over 30 armed conflicts. Beah’s novel makes clear that some of the boys who went through therapy with him never have a chance in returning back to normal life because they have no guardians or caretakers. They return to war.
Beah tells about military training and the harsh reality of Unicef’s centre of demobilisation and reintegration only in the end of the novel. Most of the story is about Ishmael, who has been separated from his family, wandering across Sierra Leone’s villages and jungles looking for food and shelter. The story progresses slowly and there are many repetitive situation motifs: running from guerrilla soldiers, loosing a companion, feeling lonely.
I thought a long time about the meaning of depiction of drifting and the reason behind repetition, until I understood that it expresses child’s way of perceiving and telling about experiences. I’m not familiar with West African tradition of storytelling but I assume that the novel uses its conventions too.
A Long Way Gone is a crushing story of what war can do to children at its worse. It also tells about customs and traditions of Sierra Leonean culture that crumbles when people turn against each other.
I believe that the novel’s artistic value is perfected due to its open ending and especially the allegorical story Beah tells in the end. The story is about a monkey who torments a hunter with an impossible riddle: “If you shoot me your mother will die, and if you don’t your father will die.” Beah has an answer to this dilemma that doesn’t exclude violence and suffering, but cuts into the core of the problem.
When Beah’s book was released it received a lot of positive attention. There was also jarring. Some journalists compared the novel’s story with historical documents and claimed that not all the details correspond to facts. Beah denies converting the truth. I don’t question Beah, but in my opinion the whole demand of veracity is absurd when we’re talking about this novel. What if the stories told in the novel differ from facts partially, would it decrease the value of this literary document? What if the whole story was fiction? What if Sierra Leone wouldn’t exist? What if there were no child soldiers in real life?
I argue that even if the novel was entirely fictional, it would still tell us more about human beings and their lack of moral than we would like to know. The value of literature is not in its correspondence with reality but in the fact (!) that through it we can see reality in another way – which in many cases isn’t flattering to humankind.
(I’ve translated the quotation from the Finnish translation myself so it might not be accurate with the original novel.)