“The full, final and complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth.” I believe I should just end the review there for this week. I really should, because when a book starts with an opening line as profound, as powerful as that you know you are in for a ride and a half. Set in central Africa this is a ten year olds account as a child soldier and all the stuff he has been through and seen. A story that tells of dictators, coup de tats, medicine men (grigrimen), death and soldiers in such a funny quick thinking smooth way that bit just keeps you asking for more and more.
The story is told through the eyes of Birahima, a ten year old child soldier with a tongue that would make even the hardest of sailors cringe. He is quick with a curse word and knows it all t 3 dictionaries thanks to his dictionaries The Larousse, The Petit Robert, The Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa and Harrap’s. As the names of the dictionaries suggest the book was originally written in French before being translated to English by a man known as Frank Wynne. However, in the words of the author (or translator), let’s start from the start.
Birahima is a child who is both protected and doomed by circumstance having being born to a disadvantaged family in an already disadvantaged society he is seemingly doomed from the onset. He tells us the story adding and removing bits where he thinks it is necessary because Allah is not obliged to be fair so neither is he right? After being forced to leave his hometown following the death of his mother he, under the guidance of his uncle, a powerful grigriman, heads in search of her and somewhere along the line ends up being a child soldier smoking lots of hashish and meeting many people.
The story takes on a journey, a tour of sorts around central and West Africa it deals with deep seated political issues directly, even names involved individuals. However it does this with such a light tough and intercepts of curses, both English and Native. The writer also has a way to show how the infiltration had gotten so bad that to the child soldier some things were just normal. Every leader in the child’s head is a dictator and everyone is corrupt. Kalashnikovs are but a means to get money and death, is inevitable. That is a bleak outlook to have on life at eighty, let alone ten.
Two things stood out for me immensely in this book. Two styles that created such a mirage that you couldn’t wait for the next time the author used them, in whatever situation. First thing was the funeral orations. Seeing as the book is written through the eyes of a child soldier death is not necessarily a rare thing in his eyes. A funeral oration, for those of you who didn’t know, is a speech on honour of someone who is dead (at least according to the Larousse) and since, by the author’s logic, child soldiers are the most famous celebrities of the late twentieth century it is only fitting that a funeral oration be said whenever one dies. That is how most of the deaths in the book end with one to two pages on the life story of each child soldier and how he (or she) ended up being a child soldier to begin with. This, obviously, could get out of hand so sometimes he doesn’t do the orations. Why? Because Allah is not obliged to do anything and neither is he.
Second thing is the repetition. Sometimes the author can repeat even full paragraphs about different situations. Such repetition has a way of bringing out the futility of trying the same things over and over again. It also brings out the similarity of all warlords. It stands out strongly and says warlords are warlords, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists warlords are warlords. They still use child soldiers, they still act as if they own the world and they still need their grigrimen because they are warlords.
The authors writing is extremely bold. It has a screw you all attitude. His pick of words is always fascinating and sometimes might even make you want to clothe it up but just as you are about to cover it up you find that even in its nudity and audacity it is magnificent. So you let it be, then you get comfortable with it finally you adore it. Interestingly, my excerpt for today comes from the very first page of the book because I think anything from the inside will just give away a tiny little bit of the story:
First off, Number one… My name is Birahima and I’m a little nigger. Not ‘cos I’m black and I’m kid. I’m a little nigger because I can’t talk French for shit. That’s how things are. You might be a grown up, or old, you might be Arab, or Chinese, or white, or Russian – or even American – if you talk bad French, it’s called parler petit nègre – little nigger talking – so that makes you a little nigger too. That’s the rules of French for you.
This is a book for one who wants to read something that grabs the issues by the balls and tickles them to death, because that is exactly what it does. Takes issues as great and as sensitive as corruption, death and religion and opens them wide exposing you to the true nature of them then makes you laugh at them, then at yourself for not being able to see such facts yourself that were so easily open to the mind that looks for answers. I refrain from completely endorsing things but this time I will sign off with the most cliché book review statement ever. A must read!
About The Author
Ahmadou Kourouma (‘one of the major figures of contemporary African literature’ Le Figaro) was born in 1927 in the small town of Boundali in the Ivory Coast. As a young man he fought the French colonial army in Indochina and studied science in France. Returning to the Ivory Coast, he worked in insurance, but having fallen foul of the regime, was jailed and subsequently spent many years in exile.
Kourouma was a playwright and the author of four novels, of which Allah n’est pas oblige (Allah Is Not Obliged) is the most recent, winner of the prestigious Prix Renaudot. En attendant le vote des betes sauvages (Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote) won the Prix du Livre Inter in 1999. Ahmadou Kuorouma died in 2004.
Allah is not Obliged is available on amazon