Friday, December 02, 2016

Sierra Leone: Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah's first book, apparently much acclaimed (I haven't read it) was "Long Way Gone", a memoir of his experiences as a child soldier in the Sierra Leonean civil war. This is his second book, a novel set in the aftermath of that war. It tells of the life of a small town, Imperi, as the people gradually return to the houses they have fled during the war, and try to rebuild and resume their former lives. But they are hampered by the depradations of a mining company and of corrupt politicians.

I felt this book came from the tradition of story telling as a teaching method. Thus, I found parts of it a bit simplistic. The elders are always wise, their earlier ways are the best ways, the mining company is totally evil and the actions of its workers, who come into town drunk at night, are totally bad. The two teachers, Benjamin and Bockarie, who are the central characters, are good men trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. This may or may not be a true reflection of what was going on in Sierra Leone after the war, but as the basis for a novel, I found it somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps a well researched non-fiction book would be a better way of bringing home the message. Or perhaps not. Apparently there was some dispute about the truth of Beah's memoir. It's easier, in a novel, to say "these things happened - not necessarily to me"- and to amalgamate all the sorts of things that happened and present them as happening to one small group of people.

The other thing that bothered me about the book was that the language felt somewhat stilted. I think this arose from the method of telling it - the omniscient third person narrator - and the need the author seemed to feel to teach facts - so we have passages that felt more at home in an encyclopedia. Passages such as
"they had come to mine rutile, a black or reddish-brown mineral consisting of titanium dioxide, which forms needle-like crystals in rocks in the earth. Rutile is used as a coating on welding rods; as pigment in paints, plastics, paper and foods; and in sunscreen to protect against ultraviolet rays. And wherever rutile is found, you also find zircon, ilmenite, bauxite, and in the case of Lion Mountain, diamonds. Not that the mining companies reveal they are mining all of these minerals. They obtain permits to dig up only one - rutile. So it is rutile alone that is mentioned in the reports it sends out, but the workers come to learn the truth."

I too, would have appreciated the chance to "come to learn" rather than being fed such undigested chunks of information, and I believe a skilled writer could achieve this. Nevertheless I enjoyed the book, particularly some of the passages where the elders told their stories from an earlier time, and where the author used expressions from his native Mende language such as "the sky rolled over and changed its sides" which means, as explained in the preface, "night came suddenly". And what I found most astonishing at the book, is the way in which it ends with Bockarie's family full of hope for the future, despite the fact that to our eyes they are at rock bottom with little to hope for. Not for nothing is the book titled "Radiance of Tomorrow".

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