There is a famous Laurel-Hardy strip where the two are soldiers stationed somewhere on the India-China border. They are worried about their dwindling resources till one day they chance upon the fact that the war had ended long ago and nobody had informed them. One cannot but sense a certain degree of sadness in what is an example of comic unreason.

Beasts of No Nation, a ghastly tale of civil war somewhere in Africa, carries a tragic intensity that is at times almost farcical. Just like in the Laurel-Hardy parody, nobody knows who is fighting whom in a country torn apart by civil strife, carnage and rebellion. It is a war without a beginning, and possibly, without an end. A war of unreason.

Iweala is only 22. A Harvard graduate born and bred in the US, he now lives in Nigeria, a country that, for much of its immediate past, has not seen a civil war. So we never really know whether the first-person narrative has any resonance in Iweala’s own life. There is not much of a storyline anyway in Beasts of No Nation. The title is indicative of Iweala’s insistence on not naming any place or territory that is bleeding in this civil war.

When a new village falls to the rebels, Agu, a native of that village, is forced to run away by his father lest he gets killed, too. Agu’s father receives the rain of bullets and Agu runs. But he runs straight into a group of rebels. Agu joins the group and for the next few months (or maybe years) he does everything that such groups do — kill men, rape women, pillage the village, and turn living habitations into gaping necropolises. Till the group is dismembered and Agu finds a home and a future in a rehabilitation centre. While there is little respite from the relentless atrocities described, there are also tender, if fleeting, moments of friendship between Agu and a mute boy called Strika, and flashbacks of Agu’s idyllic childhood, and scenes from past lives of places which no longer breathe.

The narrative is entirely in the present continuous — which is at times an irritant, and at times an aid to the plot. As a sample: “I am walking in the direction I am remembering where is the building. As I am walking to the building, I am hearing sound from before the war … I am hearing sound of pencil writing on paper and sound of writing on blackboard and how eraser is sounding when I am beating it on the stone to be removing the dust.”

The sheer simplicity of the language, however, could be disarming, especially when set against the book’s failure to come up with any original observation about war except it being pitilessly and relentlessly primal. One engaging aspect of the novel is the split within the narrative voice. Agu, the soldier is always obeying the rules of war and always saying he doesn’t want to. He is both a proactive soldier and a reactive pacifist — both at the scene of war and outside it. The fact that Agu is merely an adolescent makes his first-person account compelling.

It is too early to decide if Iweala will find mention among the African literary greats. The post-colonial urgency with which they wrote is not there anymore. But Beasts of No Nation will count among significant war narratives in a continent where somewhere or the other, everyday, ignorant armies continue to clash by night.

Beasts of No Nation | Harper Collins | 2005 | 176 Pages