The OF Blog: Ishmael Beah, Radiance of Tomorrow

Monday, June 23, 2014

Ishmael Beah, Radiance of Tomorrow

She had returned home because she could not find complete happiness anywhere else.  She had scoured refugee camps and the homes of kind strangers for some sort of joy that didn't need entertainment, something she knew existed only on the land she now stood upon.  She remembered an afternoon not so long ago that had followed days of hunger and finally an offer of a sumptuous bowl of rice with stewed fish.  She ate, at first vigorously, and then her muscles slowed down, straining the movements of her hand to her mouth.  The pepper tasted different from the one her memory still held on to, and the water she drank was not from a small calabash that smelled of the clay pot that had cooled the water for her household since she was a little girl. She finished her food and drank to stay alive, but she knew there was more to living than these temporary acknowledgements of life.  The only satisfaction that remained after finishing the food was the memory of the sound of pepper pounded in a mortar and, with it, the biting fragrance that took hold of the air around the compound and the laughter that ensued as men and boys would flee. 
"It is so easy to drive them away," her mother would say as the other women continued laughing, their eyes and noses not showing any sign of discomfort as the men's and boys' did. 
She looked at the bones again, her eyes moving beyond the piles to find strength to leap forward.  "This is still my home," she whispered to herself and sighed, pressing her bare feet deeper into the earth. (pp. 8-9, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Sierra Leonean writer Ishmael Beah's first book, the memoir A Long Way Gone, captured in prose the experiences of many of his nation's youth, pressed into war while still boys, supplied drugs in order to keep them fighting during the vicious 1990s civil war.  Here in his second book, the novel Radiance of Tomorrow, Beah takes a look at those who returned home after the fighting had ended and their struggles to rebuild what seemed to be irreparably broken.  These stories, so often lost amidst the tales of carnage and violence, can, if presented effectively, move the heart and spirit.  Radiance of Tomorrow, despite a few hiccups, largely manages to achieve this.

The story begins in the burnt village of Imperi.  One of the village's elders, Old Mama Kadie, wanders back to the ruins after fleeing years before.  There, she comes upon another elder and the two begin washing the charnel, preparing the human remains for a proper burial.  All the while, she reminisces on the events during the civil war that led to her family fleeing the violence.  Beah easily could have made this the singular scene of the novel and it would have made for a fine short novel, but he expands upon this scene of women and the men who accompany them cleaning the rubble, taking in stories of hope and redemption in the midst of despair and destruction.

Beah's prose is direct and to the point.  His characters narrate scenes, some of them gruesome in nature, unflinchingly.  Take for instance this scene taken from around the halfway point.  After the returning villagers have struggled to establish a modicum of social life, re-founding a school and working toward the reconciliation of former warring factions within the village, their fragile livelihoods are threatened by the manipulations of the government and their cronies.  The villagers are not passive observers; they do resist the encroachment of the foreigners, sometimes in a violent fashion:
Sure enough, one of the foreigners came to urinate.  Colonel attacked with several blows to the man's temple that made him faint.  Colonel dragged the foreigner to the back of the bar, undressed him, and tied his penis with a rope that he attached to the branch of a mango tree.  He tore the fellow's shirt and trousers and used the strips to bind his hands and legs, and gag his mouth.  The fellow came to after Colonel was done, and each time he moved, the rope tightened, elongating his privates.  His eyes watered but his voice couldn't go anywhere. 

Colonel did the same to two others, tying them to the same tree.  But the last man, a local, stayed in the bar longer than Colonel expected.  Finally, watching him inside the brightly lit bar from where he stood in the darkness, Colonel's anger got the best of him.  He needed to finish this before people saw the three men.  So he took his bayonet from his pocket and held it tightly behind his back.  He went into the bar and sat next to the fellow. 
"Did you happen to run into a young woman today who has some tribal marks here and is quite beautiful?" he asked, touching both sides of his cheeks to indicate where the marks were on Salimatu. 
"So what if I did?  I run into girls and women all the time.  Are you the police, small boy?"  The man rose up from his chair and stood over Colonel. 
"She is my sister, and I am better than the police."  Colonel pressed the bayonet against the man's side, not wounding him but letting him know he would, and he asked the man to walk outside.  The man thought about refusing, but he changed his mind as he felt the knife about to enter his flesh. 
He was treated the same way as the others. 
Colonel had a parcel of sugar that he sprinkled all over them.  Then he took the keys from their pockets and left.
They weren't aware at first what he had done, but they soon found out, as killer ants started arriving and climbing all over their naked bodies, biting them everywhere, until their bodies became red, swollen, and numb.  Meanwhile, using their keys, which bore the names of their quarters and room numbers, Colonel crept into their living spaces and set their rooms on fire, burning everything in them. (p. 79)
For some readers, this may be a disturbing passage, not the least for the clinical fashion in which the tortures are described.  But for those who have experienced similar depredations, particularly the mass rapes of female kin and neighbors, this treatment of suspected rapists is viewed more as an effective deterrent than as anything cruel and barbaric.  Beah does not skimp on describing such scenes.  But he does not exaggerate them or dwell upon their horrificness.  In doing so, he shows respect to those who in real life did suffer so not only by not being silent about what they endured, but also by describing the retributions sought without seeming to praise the perpetrators of such grisly revenges.

Yet Radiance of Tomorrow is not solely about the struggle to endure even after the direct violence against them is over.  Within the midst of the villagers' toiling is a clear sense of optimism, that things will be better, that with effort, life will improve.  This can be seen in the way they describe the world around them, their love of narrative, and especially in the closing lines of the novel, as one villager sings:

It is the end, or maybe the beginning, of another story.Every story begins and ends with a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a girl, a child.Every story is a birth... (p. 145)
And it is within this hope that Radiance of Tomorrow not only takes its name, but also its exuberance for life in the aftermath of death and suffering.  It may not be technically perfect, as some scenes do seem to be redundant, but by story's end, it is a gripping narrative that leaves the reader wanting to know more about what happens next.  If only more stories could possess this quality.

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