There can be something voyeuristic, if not worse, in the reaction of well-intentioned Western commentators to traumas experienced by those living in the developing world. William Boyd, in his New York Times review of Ishmael Beah’s acclaimed 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone, about being a child soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war, writes wonderingly about how “disturbing” African conflicts are in their “unpremeditated” and “guileless” quality. What distinguishes Beah’s first novel is the uncompromising way the author subverts such voyeurism without sacrificing his quiet, measured voice.
The story begins with the post-war renewal of a burnt-out village, Imperi. Its displaced inhabitants, some horribly damaged, slowly return. Victims and victimizers encounter each other, and must find a way to co-exist. Beah shows how simple social graces and traditions like elders’ storytelling, coupled with the presence of children too young to remember the war, help heal the shattered community. He also beautifully depicts natural forms of reconciliation: a former child soldier, Ernest, who cut off the hands of an entire family, takes upon himself the service of that family, beginning by anonymously hauling water to their door.
While Beah does not imply that recovery from such a protracted and brutal conflict is easy, (“everyone just sat around afraid to find pleasure in most things”), he portrays it as an organic process, as though war were the mother of all natural calamities. People fall into old patterns, village life rebounds. “Women and girls sang sweet melodies as they fished with nets in the river; farmers would lay out fresh cucumbers on the path for those going by to take a few and eat. Such things had returned…” But in spite of the revival, the war leaves an empty space, especially for young people, which is quickly occupied by other forces: poverty, corruption, and most devastatingly, exploitation by Western capital.
The author suggests that the systemic and seemingly insurmountable cruelty of these forces equals or outweighs the ravages of war. From a focus on the village, Beah zooms in on the lives of two hard-working Imperi teachers and family men, Benjamin and Bockarie. Idealistic, they wish to inspire their pupils, who conclude from the teachers’ shabbiness (their meager pay is unpredictable) that an education does not improve one’s life. After a long period of hardship, teachers and students fall prey to work offered by a Western mining company that has moved into the village in search of rutile. Beah describes, in a narrative that echoes developments in every corner of the world, how the company digs up even sacred land thanks to a 99-year lease granted by the government, lays exposed live wires that kill children, and poisons the river the locals eat fish from. Its workers, white and black, disrespect tradition and violate local women. Village elders fight back to no avail, for the mining company has bribed government officials, and offers regular, if acutely dangerous, employment. Benjamin, having traded his blackboard for a hard hat, wonders “what path to walk on when all of them were either crooked or broken? One just has to walk.”
Oddly, with this new source of trauma, the old war becomes a channel of strength. A positive bond eventually forms between Ernest and his former victims; a young rape survivor develops a deep friendship with another young woman who helps mother her unasked-for child; and a charismatic former child-soldier who calls himself Colonel commits acts of controlled but horrifying violence to avenge the villagers and maintain order. Colonel is a living testament to Sierra Leone’s hardiness, and he refuses to allow the company to completely destroy the life of the village. Beah writes of him and his followers: “They did what they could through methods they had acquired over time. Some might say their methods were violent. But what was more violent than making people disbelieve in the worth of their own lives? What was more violent than making them believe they deserved less and less every day?”
Beah’s novel is full of profound passages which acknowledge the necessity of nuanced judgments in a world of “crooked or broken” roads. The decisions his people grapple with are, in their ethical essence, our own. This writer is at his most compelling when clear and direct. It is a pity that portions of the text are marred by awkwardness and ill-fated attempts at cultural translation: “His heart hesitated to give permission to his face to turn around and greet his friend.” Technical issues aside, Radiance of Tomorrow is a book that says daring things with gentle authority. In spite of the horrors faced by its central characters, it does not invite reactions from a safe remove, but offers the sense of a shared fate.
Aparna Sanyal is the former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.