Song for Night by Chris Abani
It’s an archetypal war story. A soldier regains consciousness on the battlefield. All is silent and still. He finds that he can stand, that he can walk, and so he sets out, confident that he’ll catch up with his platoon. He walks and walks through a stunned and ravaged land. He becomes disoriented. He is haunted by the dead, besieged by memories, beset by delusions. In his second knife-to-the heart novella, Chris Abani makes this classic plot devastatingly new.
Born in Nigeria, Abani was already a published writer in his teens and quickly ran afoul of his civil war-torn country’s violently repressive military regime. Imprisoned and tortured, Abani went into exile in 1991. Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Freedom-to-Write award, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, Abani is a lyrical and clarion writer of spirit and truth. GraceLand introduced him to American readers with a bang. Set in a violent ghetto of Laos, Nigeria, in the 1970s and 1980s, the novel portrays a teenager named Elvis who survives by impersonating the American idol whose name he carries. The Virgin of the Flames is another kaleidoscopic urban novel, this one set in post-9/11 Los Angeles and portraying a mural artist named Black. In between these two big, complex novels of cultural collision, war and peace, and the longing for connection and love, Abani published his fourth poetry collection, Hands Washing Water, and an eviscerating novella of sexual brutality, Becoming Abigail.
Like Becoming Abigail, Song for Night is an intense and concentrated first-person tale of lost identity, displacement, and epic suffering. But it is a grander, more assured, and more mythic work dramatizing a world in catastrophic flux as well as an individual struggling to stay sane and alive. Here is a land in the grip of mass psychosis as people enact an orgy of hate, a mad carnival of blood. Our guide through this hell is a boy named My Luck who became a solider at age 12 after witnessing the murders of his Islam-convert father and stoic mother.
My Luck is now 15. Small and smart, he was trained to detect and, if still unharmed, defuse land mines. To ensure that My Luck and his brave comrades, including Ijeoma, the girl My Luck loves, remain quiet no matter what happens, the troop leaders have cut their vocal chords. Consequently, the mine seekers have created a sign language as elegant and powerful as Buddhist mudras (finger positions and hand gestures), and each chapter title is the poetic definition of a sign: “Silence is a Steady Hand, Palm Flat.” “Love is a Backhanded Stroke to the Cheek.”
Abani writes with equal grace of shocking things: rape, point-blank executions of innocent women and children, cannibalism, the last moments of the life of a girl soldier reduced to a bloody torso. Abani’s glinting sentences are radiant with tenderness as he reminds us, once again, that horror is integral to life, running like a dark vein beneath the verdant earth.
My Luck is tough and resourceful. He walks for miles and miles in the heat. He takes to the river when necessary, in spite of the patrolling crocodiles and a “macabre regatta” of corpses. He sleeps high up in trees; he lives off the land and his wits. But he is confused, lost in a maze of regrets and nightmares, possibly walking in circles. Dehydrated and hungry, he isn’t sure if what he sees is real or a mirage. And when he finally meets up with the living, people seem to think that he is a ghost.
The boy soldier carries on his body his “own personal cemetery.” He has cut crosses into his arm for each of his lost loved ones, and he has sliced X’s into his flesh to mark each person he “enjoyed killing.” But for all of self-preserving ferocity, My Luck has not lost his moral compass, nor his capacity for wonder or love. He eagerly learned to crochet when his mother was alive, happy to create, knot-by-knot, a “wide but strong web.” Now “war-hardened,” he still yearns for wholeness and hope, but all he sees is fracture and death. And yet My Luck muses, “even with the knowledge that there are some sins too big for even God to forgive, every night my sky is still full of stars; a wonderful song for night.” Attuned to all that is evil and sublime, open to life’s full spectrum of pain and pleasure, Chris Abani is a writer of mesmerizing powers, embracing warmth, and transcendent compassion.
Song for Night by Chris Abani
Donna Seaman is an associate editor at Booklist and host of Open Books (openbooksradio.org). Her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air. Seaman has also created the anthology, In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness.