To Do a Person’s Work: A Review of Boy, Interrupted
- Title: Boy, Interrupted
- Author: Saah Millimono
- Publisher: Kwani Trust
- Number of pages: 150
- Year of publication: 2014
- Category: Fiction
‘SBU da Small Boy Unit, the albino said. Today we na bring dem wif us. You say yor son da twelve year ol, but wait until you see seven-year-ol boys in deh SBU’
There are many absurdities in life. Love in a time of war, for example. Nobel peace medals on the chests of warlords or commanders of drone attacks or financiers of genocide. What about dynamite? Do not ask.
When Saah Millimono set his novel, Boy, Interrupted, during the events surrounding the first Liberian civil war, little did one expect to learn a few things about the art of the modest novel. In 150 pages of laconic prose, Millimono tracks the evolution of the protagonist, Tarnue, from his yanna childhood through the mindless carnage of the war to his attempts at a dignified adulthood.
For the many years for which war incinerated the civilisation that was Liberia, many wondered at the cause of this insanity in Sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest democracy. Millimono does not attempt to answer that question, nor does he really dwell on the implications and trajectories of the battles. Instead, he settles into the details of daily life through the eyes of the twelve-year-old Tarnue, who is sent off to live with an emasculated uncle and his domineering and abusive wife.
Tarnue becomes friends with a classmate, Kou Karnwea. Soon, the harmless teasing of boy and girl by curious adults is replaced by rumours of ethnic cleansing in far removed geographies and the fact of summary dismissals from the civil service on suspicions of tribal allegiance. Eventually, the drums of war are beaten, and the cadence is such that these two friends are torn apart and, within the space of two years, thrust violently into adulthood. Kou becomes the ‘wife’ of one of the rebel fighters, endures physical and psychological abuse that culminates in teenage pregnancy.
Tarnue takes a journey into child soldiering that is similar to Agu’s in Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation. Novels about child soldiers are not new to the continent, from Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged to Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation. Having become separated from his uncle by a band of renegades, Tarnue is conscripted into the Small Boy Unit (SBU) of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). However, little is said of his training and indoctrination. In short order, the reader encounters a different Tarnue, a hardened, marijuana-smoking war machine that is capable of exacting a cold-blooded revenge that is even greater than humiliation from his victim. He recalls:
When you are pumped full of marijuana as I was; when you had drunk human blood and eaten human heart you are truly no longer afraid. And you begin to look at your fellow human beings with the eyes of a hyena (p 120).
In Boy, Interrupted, there are lapses in the author’s handling of the psychological development of Tarnue. The protagonist shows no antisocial tendencies before the outbreak of war. He loves, like many boys his age, to wander and seek harmless fun. How does that twelve-year-old become a cannibal so quickly? Boy, Interrupted does not attempt to fully explain how children, who arrive at training camps quaking with trepidation, are brainwashed and conditioned into vicious killers.
Tarnue’s journey from frog catching and other boyhood diversions to becoming a terror machine and his post-war reunion with his love, Kou, is not complete without the flamboyant characters of the war commanders who had equally outrageous noms de guerre such as Commanders Rambo and Dirty Water. These psychopaths stepped into the leadership vacuum created by the anarchy of war. Many of the major players in that human catastrophe are still active in Liberian politics today.
An account of the infamous St Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre, on 29 July 1990, where hundreds of people were gunned down, foreshadowing similar occurrences that would take place thousands of kilometres away in 1994 Rwanda, is worked into Tarnue’s story. The sordidness of that tale is not diminished by it being recounted in the passive voice of the child narrator. The incident sticks out as a testament to the depths to which humans can descend in the throes of unrestrained primal wantonness.
Boy, Interrupted is also the novice’s introduction to the absurdity of global politics. As war breaks out, the Americans come for their own in helicopters while the abandoned Liberian refugees look on as if a chariot of fire is bearing away their saviours.
In sparse prose reminiscent of Hemingway, Millimono points the reader to the co-ordinates of the story. It is delightful to read unaffected prose with an almost child-like pristineness, yet able to realise much of the emotional ambition expected of a work dealing with war. In any account of tragedy, the tendency to write schmaltzy verbosities can mire a writer and derail their objectives.
Millimono avoids these – perhaps dictated by the imperatives of creating a believable child narrator or by an understanding of the dynamics of a dispassionate rendering of war. The narrative almost errs on the side of reportage. Even at the end of the book, when the war is over and Tarnue wants to propose marriage to Kou, he uses the functional expression, ‘I am thinking of marrying you’.
There is a lightness of form, which distils the essence of the story: the budding love between Tarnue and Kou that is all but nipped by the Liberian civil war and which blooms in the wake of atrocities. This business-like approach will endear the book to readers. Things are not sugarcoated or exaggerated. The Liberian patois, deployed in the book’s dialogue, tiptoes in gleeful conspiracy with the reader.
This novel also expands our vocabulary of war with Liberian expressions such as ‘gbezi-yenibi’, ‘tiebay’, and ‘to do a person’s work’, the last phrase referring to the summary execution of a person. Doing a person’s work may involve a hasty interrogation, preceding rape, bludgeoning and other acts of viciousness before the victim is taken aside and unceremoniously shot. The bodies are then dumped in shallow, unmarked graves.
Boy, Interrupted can be accused of lacking literary ambition. It is, however, a decent portrayal of the exigencies of life in the face of dehumanising conflict. It is a valuable tale of love, loss and redemption.
Photograph: ‘Faces of Liberia – Together Liberia – David Trotman-Wilkins’ by Multimedia Photography and Design
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Tunji Olalere writes from Lagos.