Chris Abani’s novella “Song for Night” is a harrowingly beautiful recount of war from a decidedly unlucky child soldier named My Luck. As a member of a platoon of children trained to defuse mines, his vocal cords, as well as his comrades’, have been severed with a standard procedure so that if any of them were to accidentally trip a mine, “we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams.” Without his voice, My Luck does not speak to us, but we hear him because Abani thrusts us into the ghostly realm of his mind that grants us access to his inner Igbo dialogue. With a beginning that grips us with paradox and the slight worry of our own invasiveness, Abani sets the tone for a work that is part war story, part dreamscape, and an epic told at the length of a novella.
The story begins three years into the war and My Luck wakes from a landmine explosion to find his fellow soldiers gone. This sets him on a frightening journey chasing after his platoon through a brutally war-ravaged landscape. This search and the story as a whole exist on two different planes: the tangible physical journey through dangerous terrain and the fatiguing spiritual journey through memory. His search for his lost group converges with a search through his past memories.
Wearing a broken, but sentimental watch that only tells the time in minutes, time is relative and non-linear for My Luck, which makes the narrative fragmented for us. In moments, it’s as though time bunches up between the past and the present, like everything in the middle collapses and My Luck is able to step in between now and then. There is an eerie quality to the seamless crossover in how he reexperiences the past as he encounters it in the present physical landscape, the same eerie quality possessed by his never-ending pack of cigarettes.
Fragmentation, as revealed through the narrative, is also steadfast in its recurrence through My Luck’s memory of bodies, voices and people. In a job where “bullets and shrapnel from mines and mortar shells can tear a body to pieces,” bodily fragmentation is the prevailing casualty. But this destruction to the body occurs on multiple levels. When My Luck is put under the doctor’s scalpel, the intrusion of the other that results in the loss of his voice is a form of dismemberment. The loss of voice is also a fracturing of identity; the procedure becomes the demarcation between his life pre-colonial subjectivity and his one after, as a soldier.
John Wayne, the Western officer who trained and led the platoon, had a memorized book of protocols he would dictate from. One such protocol required a count to be taken of the dead, but it fails to take into account how the war rips people apart,
“An arm here, a leg over there in the foliage – all of which have to be retrieved and assembled into the semblance of a complete body before there can be a count…Many of the parts do not add up. This is the enemy’s cruelty – that much of the generation who survive this war will not be able to rebuild their communities.”
The tragedy of this war goes beyond the gruesome deaths, mangled bodies, and horrifying acts forcibly observed or committed by child soldiers. In a narrative that flits between the past and the present, Abani shows us the true tragedy found in the future when the cruel effect of war lies in the permanent fragmentation of families, communities, and nations. Even the survivors can not escape the dismembered fate of the dead.
As My Luck travels through his past in an attempt to search for his comrades, his struggle is not for survival, but to understand the horrific cruelty of the world and his place in it. There is no simple morality to his quest for self-comprehension as he relives the atrocities he has both committed and seen. As a child who has killed and raped, he says to us, “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.”
In a landscape where everything is thoroughly ravaged by war, a delicate beauty still exists. It’s found in the taste of freshly caught fish, in the sun that warms the skin, in the dolphin that says hello, and in the love that washes the aftertaste of rape. But beauty doesn’t just exist in these thin threads. Through Abani’s deft prose, it often dually exists with the macabre in a single moment. In a river of corpses, My Luck gives a skeleton a proper burial and wears its cobwebs as a cape. A scene of death and ugliness can be transformed into one of beauty and sublime. This is how Abani crafts a story that seemingly dissolves, but ultimately reinforces the potential for hope.