ALLAH IS NOT OBLIGED by Ahmadou Kourouma (Vintage), 215 pages, $21.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
Ten-year-old Birahima is the blisteringly foul-mouthed child soldier narrating Ahmadou Kourouma’s latest novel, Allah Is Not Obliged. The full title, he tells us in the first sentence, is “Allah is not obliged to be fair about the things he does on this earth.”
After witnessing his mother’s agonizing death from cancer, Birahima is sent out with his stepfather, a local “gris-gris man,” to catch up with his fleeing aunt in Liberia. On the way, they’re caught up in an ambush by child soldiers, into whose ranks they’re soon inducted.
Birahima is immediately given an AK-47 and fortified with hashish, while his stepfather is put to work making special bulletproofing charms for Papa Le Bon, a former priest turned warlord who sports an AK-47, a cardinal’s mitre and a papal staff.
Birahima and his stoned fellow soldiers raze and plunder villages, kill innocent civilians and fight other child soldiers in a numbing pageant of violence, death and degradation. When rumours fly that another warlord offers better rations, Birahima and his friends defect.
Through this unapologetic and guileless narrative, Kourouma deftly exposes the tangled roots of the region’s misery. Age-old ethnic rivalries, dire poverty, the worst after-effects of colonialism, fanatical religious and revolutionary politics and naked greed have contributed to a toxic regional conflict with no easy end in sight. Each of these weaknesses is repeatedly exploited by sociopathic mercenaries who gain regional power by causing the highest body count.
This isn’t the most sobering truth we get from Kourouma. He makes it plain that children will accept the world they’re born into as given, even if it is one ruled entirely by random violence and fear. As traumatized as Birahima is, he’s more defiant than remorseful. The end of the novel shows him climbing the ranks of the military, leaving us with the sense that he’ll soon be perpetuating the criminal system under which he so recently suffered.