Fiction – paperback; Akashic Books; 168 pages; 2007.
Earlier this year I read a profoundly disturbing and confronting novel — Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali — about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Chris Abani’s novella, Song for Night, treads similar territory, but it is set in an unspecified West African nation at a time of war. (Given that the main character speaks Igbo, a language from south-eastern Nigeria, that is probably the likely location of the book.)
The story is told from the perspective of a child soldier, a ghost who travels the countryside looking for the platoon from which he was separated. He is known as My Luck, an ironic name given he’s lead a short and rather unlucky life: his father, a Muslim cleric in a country of Roman Catholics, is murdered “before the hate began” and not long later his mother is killed in front of him.
When he is 12 he is recruited for a “special mission”, something that gives meaning to a life already in disarray:
I had been selected to be part of an elite team, a team of engineers highly trained in locating and eliminating the threat of clandestine enemy explosives. Even though I had no idea what clandestine enemy explosives were, I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t be after three weeks of training and all the time marching for hours in the hot sun doing drills with a carved wooden gun while waiting for the real thing — either from the French who had promised weapons or from the front, where they had been liberated from the recently dead.
Under the wing of Major Essien, nicknamed John Wayne, My Luck is taught to detect unexploded mines with his bare feet and then disable them with a jungle knife, a dangerous occupation, made all the more cruel by having his vocal chords cut — “so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams” whenever a fellow solider is blown up by a mine.
This is a horrific, hate-filled world that Abani presents here — and some of the scenes depicted are sickening in the extreme. But there’s a strange beauty at work — the prose is often poetic and dreamlike — as My Luck traverses the landscape, alone and unaided, and often under the cover of night, as he searches for the people who accidentally left him behind.
During this adrenalin trip across rebel territory littered with bloated corpses and mass graves, where one false move could end in death, My Luck recalls events which have lead him to this point in time. It is three years into a brutal civil war, so there is much to tell. There’s the looting, the rapes, the love affair with a platoon member — and the constant, overbearing tiredness of survival. You want to egg him on, to continue his quest, but then you wonder if there would be any point? Surely, My Luck is trapped in an endless cycle of death and destruction?
Song for Night is not a pleasant read, and if you’re troubled by scenes of violence and bloodshed it’s probably not for you. But this is an important book, one that feels “truthful” about a world few of us know anything about and, thankfully, have no experience in. Amid the terror and the brutality, there is a deep, underlying humanity here, about what it is like to have your childhood stolen from you, a world in which life is cheap and hate comes easily.