I was on a bus in Mali, somewhere in the desert between Bamako and Ségou, when we suddenly lurched to a stop. The sun was just starting to set, and the man sitting next to me said solemnly, "It's time for prayers." As we all shuffled off the bus, he threw his arm around the shoulders of the man sitting across the aisle and said, "Come on friend, let's go pray." As most of the other riders laid out their prayer mats facing east, however, the man and a group of his friends leaned against the bus and lit up a long line of cigarettes. They were Muslim, surely, but at that moment a Dunhill held more appeal than prostrations and murmured Arabic. In the middle of the desert, baser appetites superceded religious beliefs.
Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma's Allah is Not Obliged abounds with characters who strictly define and divide themselves as Muslim, Christian, or animist. But because Kourouma sets his story in the middle of the civil wars that burnt through Liberia and Sierra Leone in the nineties, the characters' similarities are more apparent than their differences—everyone is equally corrupt, violent, and power-hungry.
The novel, originally published in France in 2000, was Kourouma's last before his death in 2003. While his earlier work, including the novels The Suns of Independence and Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, also covered criminality in postcolonial West African life, with Allah Is Not Obliged Kourouma takes aim at a more recent and jarring phenomenon in the region: the widespread use of child soldiers, whom he calls "the most famous celebrities of the late twentieth century." The reader accompanies the narrator, a foul-mouthed ten-year-old orphan named Birahima, as he bounces from conflict to conflict over the course of several months in 1993. Traveling from his home village in Cote d'Ivoire, he goes in search of his aunt's house in Liberia, hoping she will adopt him. But once across the border, he quickly finds himself caught up in the tribal war raging there. Birhahima is given an AK-47, a supply of dope, and orders to kill.
From the moment Birahima picks up his gun, the story becomes a picaresque; he remakes himself as a sort of child-soldier Mother Courage in order to stay alive. But whereas Brecht's doggedly amoral Courage survived the Thirty Years' War through her willingness to play a multitude of roles in it, Birahima can only be one thing: a child solider. Kourouma highlights the futility of trying to escape this bleak cycle by peppering the novel with a whole slew of refrains, from Birahima's frequent curse words (many of them—faforo!—in Kourouma's native language of Malinké) to the repetition of the title, which is often given in full: "Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth." History repeats itself and, as always, this is not a good thing.
Kourouma doesn't shy away from putting Birahima right in the thick of things, letting him interact with the real players in the civil wars—no thinly fictionalized names here. At times the narrative voice seems to suffer in the service of providing a detailed recounting of the more shameful moments in recent West African political history. The same child who says "In bed, when I did pooh-pooh or pee-pee," also occasionally talks about the vagaries of Liberian election results or takes on an anthropologist's tone when discussing tribal politics. For the most part, though, Birahima's profane voice is one of the novel's great pleasures. Frank Wynne does a commendable job of translating the narrator's one-of-a-kind mixture of "colonial, racist, colonising French and big Black Nigger African Native words, and bastard nigger pidgin words."
As lively a character as this "fearless, blameless street kid" is, the author has greater ambitions. Birahima's plight serves to expose the absurdities of tribal warfare—and the even greater absurdities of religion in the region. Most of the warlords that Birahima fights under profess to be men of great faith, but religion repeatedly proves to be a mere imprimatur upon whatever murderous actions a given tribe wishes to commit. As a commander of a troop of child soldiers in Liberia puts it memorably, "God says thou shalt not kill too much, or at least thou shalt kill less."
Kourouma clearly takes a dim view of human nature—not just in West Africa, but everywhere. In Birahima's words, the warlords "divide up everything and the whole world lets them, everyone in the whole world lets them kill innocent men and children and women." But Birahima has little sympathy for the purported solution to the atrocities, sending in peacekeepers from Nigeria: "'Humanitarian peacekeeping' is when one country is allowed to send soliders into another country to kill innocent victims." In one scene, the Nigerian navy simply lobs shell after shell into Freetown, Sierra Leone, "shelling the whole fucking mess," in a late-twentieth-century update of Heart of Darkness.
While the reader may be able to derive some moral, some store of outrage sufficient enough to provoke action, from the novel—or from the real events in Africa and elsewhere from which it is drawn—Kourouma's rabidly anti-sentimental narrator resists such an easy conclusion. For Birahima the calculus remains very simple: "when you've got no one left on earth, no father, no mother, no brother, no sister, and you're really young, just a little kid, living in some fucked-up barbaric country where everyone is cutting everyone's throat, what do you do? You become a child-solider of course." Let's go pray.
Christopher Cox is associate editor of The Paris Review.