University of Surrey Roehampton
On the publication of Allah n'est pas obligé in 2000 critics were not slow to pick up on the similarities between Ahmadou Kourouma's latest novel and Sozaboy A novel in Rotten English, undoubtedly the best-known of the novels by the late Nigerian author, Ken Saro-Wiwa, which had been published some fifteen years earlier. The postcolonial imagination seems to be programmed by experiences of exile, displacement and various types of social and cultural trauma to default to a limited number of key topoi as a source for material through which to express the postcolonial condition. If the allegorical return to the native land with its rich panoply of symbolic and metaphorical resonances, was the privileged figure in operation in an earlier era of the literature of the African diaspora, the disillusionment of the post-Independence years has found expression in any number of novels portraying dictators, dictatorships and the dehumanising effects of power-relations on individuals and collectivities. More recently the incoherence of experience, in the present instance that of 'child' soldiers brutalised by violence, appears to offer one version of the most recent map available for the exploration of the territory which the postcolonial imagination is entering. It is certainly a territory with recognisable postmodern features: the grand narratives of history, the 'rootedness' provided by common mythologies or by the overarching teleologies of progress are all banished from the worlds projected in these novels. But paradoxically, the descent into chaos which this type of novel exemplifies may well be readable as a postmodern, postcolonial archetypal experience.
The two novels have much in common. The protagonist/narrator in each is a 'child' soldier whose narrative provides a personal account of his experiences of war.  Mene, the narrator of Sozaboy, is involved in an unnamed conflict which is nevertheless clearly recognisable as the Biafran war which threatened to provoke the implosion of the Nigerian federation between 1967 and 1970.  On the other hand, Birahima, the child narrator of Kourouma's novel, explicitly identifies the conflict in which he is embroiled: the more recent war which ravaged Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. From a historical perspective, it is no doubt important to point out that the background to the events recounted in the novels is quite distinct and that the conflicts concerned are separated by some three decades of time. But there is a sense, which is underscored by both novels, that these conflicts are examples of the general category 'war' rather than accounts of particular conflicts, and this despite the wealth of factual detail which Kourouma provides in Allah n'est pas obligé. Both Kourouma and Saro-Wiwa are at pains to portray the experience of war in terms of the moral and ethical dilemmas that it throws up. Their novels examine extreme situations where fundamental questions about human nature can be posed: they evoke the margins and the borderlands where humanity and inhumanity are near neighbours and attempts to understand and distinguish between them contribute to a better definition and an enriched understanding of the human condition itself.
It would be tempting to see the common preoccupations of Sozaboy and Allah n'est pas obligé, together with the various similarities in their subject matter and narrative technique, as evidence of a conscious reworking by Kourouma of Saro-Wiwa's earlier novel. One might just as easily turn the tables and suggest that Saro-Wiwa's 'rotten English' was inspired by the innovative approach to linguistic hybridity to be found in Kourouma's Les Soleils des indépendances, or, to remain within a Nigerian context, by Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard.  Such similarities cannot be determining factors in the creative process. The originality and distinctiveness of both novels is so great that such similarities as exist between them clearly make an additional contribution to their richness, and to the richness of the literatures to which they belong. Moreover, the real similarity between Kourouma and Saro-Wiwa is one that we owe it to both of them to fully acknowledge. It is the fact that each in his own way has used, or continues to use, literature as a medium to proclaim to the world the plight of postcolonial Africa. They share the nightmare of witnessing horrendous experiences taking place on the African continent, and the desire to bear witness is what they really have in common.
But neither Kourouma nor Saro-Wiwa are writing history even though their novels have a relationship to historical events. For Kourouma, the need to provide detail on the various factions and groupings confronting each other in the turmoil is unavoidable if Birahima's personal voyage is to be understood by readers, many of whom are unlikely to be familiar with the internal politics of West African states. But by providing such detail, Kourouma is historicising his narrative and placing it in a recognisable historical setting rather than giving a version of historical events. This is precisely what he has done in all his previous writings which successfully blend a number of elements: they invariably recount the drama of individual characters but played out in a setting which generally foregrounds the mystifying powers of mythology yet never loses sight of the historical dimension. Ideological and political realities are forces which Kourouma consistently recognises and incorporates into his fiction but they are subsumed into a mythological framework, which it is his task as novelist to portray rather than explain or evaluate.
For Saro-Wiwa, the historical events of the Biafran war had a decisive importance. His attempts to analyse their significance did not stop with his fictionalisation of the experience of 'the common people' which Sozaboy represents ; they continued in other forms, for example in the account of his personal experience of the war, On a Darkling Plain, whose publication he delayed in order to allow time for the process of reconciliation to be set in train.  One of the major conclusions to come out of these various workings and re-workings was that the civil war was merely one instance among many of the flouting of minority rights which, for Saro-Wiwa, characterised Nigeria's short history. It thus linked up with the passion that became the central focus of his life and precipitated his untimely death: the fate of the Ogoni people. The 'real victim of that war', he writes, 'were the Eastern minorities who were in a no-win situation. They are the oppressed of Nigeria.'  The pattern which the war already prefigures, then, and which subsequent history will repeat, involves a total disregard for the wishes and aspirations, not to mention the security and physical well-being, of significant numbers of marginalised minorities. This was the cause which Saro-Wiwa espoused and which led him to oppose both General Ojukwu's secessionist ambitions in the late 60s and subsequent leaders of the Nigerian Federal government in the 80s and 90s: leaders whose alliance with the powerful oil companies, Shell-BP, had consequences as disastrous as the war itself on many of the ethnic groups of Eastern Nigeria. 
From a narrowly historical perspective, Saro-Wiwa ended up, like his protagonist Mene, fighting against both of the parties which the Biafran conflict had ranged against each other. But the paradox dissolves when one realises that despite his contempt for Ojukwu, Saro-Wiwa was on neither side in the civil war. His analysis of the situation, expressed in his journalism and in autobiographical writings, treats the problems of Nigerian society as essentially neo-colonial problems, with emerging African elites and international business interests forming alliances which ultimately collaborate to the detriment of the people as a whole. His own emphasis is more properly 'postcolonial' in that the concern which is omnipresent in his work is to promote forms of economic and social development that respect the needs and aspirations of all the various groups which the accidents of colonial history have brought together.
None of these remarks has explicatory value for the novels themselves but they provide a context which is relevant to any reading of them. Kourouma's private feelings and judgments about the various factions engaged in the Liberian war are not part of the material of his novel. The effect the war has on Birahima, and the consequences that his experiences imply, be they for the future of the child, as a Malinké, as an African and as a human being, are his prime concern. Saro-Wiwa's account of his protagonist's effort to survive the devastation of war is rooted in, but not limited to, the author's own more general views on the significance of that conflict. The author's views are not a key to the novel but they shed light on many aspects of Mene's character and many of the experiences he is called upon to endure.
Mene's experience of war is part of a process of personal development and Sozaboy has rightly been considered a Bildungsroman. Poorly educated, naïve, impressionable and with only a limited grasp of the significance of the events going on around him, Mene's failings are nevertheless easily forgivable. Indeed he has a number of redeeming qualities, including an ability to empathise with those in difficulty. At the start of the novel, he is optimistic, energetic and ambitious. His intention is to do something with his life: 'if I save my salary and my chop money, I can buy my own lorry and then I will be a big man like any lawyer or doctor' [Sozaboy, p.11]. He has a strong sense of duty to his mother and to his home town, Dukana, even if he is capable of recognising the fact that its remoteness makes the town and its inhabitants chronically uninteresting and ignorant. As is so often the case, the limitations of the character, particularly his naivety, allow his observations as narrator all the better to reflect the values and the deficiencies of the society in which he lives. He shares many of these values, both positive and negative, and a good number of the deficiencies, some of which are exemplified when he summarises the reasons why he chooses to become a soldier. Nor should the decision-making process itself be taken for granted since it also serves to illustrate an important side to Mene's character: his constant tendency to interrogate his experience and to try to make sense of it. The first seven chapters of the novel provide a gradual accumulation of reasons (reinforced by frequent repetitions) why Mene decides to enlist. This is Mene's own summary:
The fact that there is a list at all, even though it peters out to 'plus [...] plus' once five items have been mentioned, is indicative of Mene's attempts at methodical thinking. As for the reasons given, they are a strange mixture of the altruistic and the callow. The common thread which runs through them is Mene's desire to prove himself to various constituencies and in various ways. Following his own order of presentation, he wishes to prove himself to those who question his courage as an individual (Zaza), to those who question the ethical worth of the community to which he belongs (the 'thick man'), to those who challenge his own sense of masculine superiority (the 'Simple Defence' girls), to his wife (who wants a man who can 'defend her when trouble come' [Ibid]), and to those who seem ready to respond to the vague concept of the needs of the moment (the 'tall man'). In addition, he is tempted to enhance his own attractiveness and status within his community. There is little morally repugnant about these motives, even if some of them indicate a certain shallowness and superficiality on the part of Mene. But his culpability in this respect is somewhat mitigated by the fact that his motivations are simply a reflection of the moral and social environment in which he moves. It is indeed remarkable that no-one in Mene's entourage, even those like Zaza who have experienced conflict first-hand, seems able to propose a more realistic picture of the brutality and destructiveness inevitably associated with the soldier's role in wartime. Mene's failure to recognise what his decision to become a soldier really means thus derives from a more general failure on the part of the community to which he belongs.
Even when the harsh realities of war begin to challenge and gradually replace in Mene's consciousness the superficial and self-deluded reasoning that characterises the early chapters, the novel never proposes any attempt to explain the nature of war in general or suggest reasons for this war in particular. Once Tan Papa has produced the pleonastic expression 'war is war' [Sozaboy, p.75], the sole explanation available for so much that is inexplicable, it echoes throughout the novel, reinforcing by its very circularity and self-referential nature the fact that war negates reason and is an activity which it is essentially futile to seek to rationalise. This is one step away from recognising the futility of the activity itself, a recognition which gradually dawns on Mene as he realises that he has no understanding of the reasons why he is fighting:'As we are staying inside that pit, many things used to worry me you know. Like that question. Why are we fighting?' [Sozaboy, p.90]. Nor has he any clear idea who the enemy are. His confusion in this regard is heightened by the behaviour of Manmuswak, the double agent for whom war is the pursuit of business by other means. Manmuswak exploits the chaos war brings to further his own ends and does so with a total disregard for the value of human life. This is illustrated in the starkest possible manner for Mene as Manmuswak alternately threatens and then saves his life, before threatening it yet again: responding to circumstances as private needs dictate. As his name suggests (according to the Glossary 'a man must live [eat] by whatever means' [Sozaboy, p.184]) he represents the exponent of 'bellytics' rather than politics, but his very amorality is his greatest advantage. It allows him to adapt to circumstances and ensure his survival. War is the environment in which such creatures prosper. This is no doubt the deeper meaning behind the words he utters in the Africa Upwine Bar: 'I don't think it [war] is a good thing or a bad thing [...] Myself, if they say fight, I fight. If they say no fight, I cannot fight. Finish.' [Sozaboy, p.17]
Mene, too, ends up fighting on both sides in the war, but not out of expediency and rather as a way of emphasising the fact that he is not equipped to discriminate between two distinct causes. Nothing in the novel suggests that such discrimination is possible.  Beyond the limited understanding of Mene there is no higher logic at work, only the self-serving logic of the 'bellytics' of Manmuswak, Chief Birabee and Pastor Biraka, and the equally self-serving politics of the Chief Commander General.
Confronted with the horrors of war Mene succeeds in growing into a greater awareness of the reality of his own situation and, without analysing why, he decides to stop being a soldier and search for his family, his wife Agnes and his mother. This spontaneous reaffirmation of morally respectable values gives some indication of the journey he has travelled even if it is expressed in actions rather than conceptualised in language.
But the growth metaphor is one that has to be used cautiously: Mene's journey has involved unlearning as much as it has involved learning. And ultimately his experiences deprive him of his family, irrevocably alienate him from his community (who consider him a malevolent spirit responsible for the cholera outbreak which has descended upon Dukana) and leave him effectively stripped of his identity, possessed only of a physical being which has no way of connecting with the culture that nourished him. He has become a non-person. A more complete annihilation cannot be imagined and the fact that Saro-Wiwa contrives to maintain his character in life precisely in order to deny him meaningful existence, is the greatest of all the novel's many ironies. The strangely (and atypically) ungrammatical formulation which Saro-Wiwa uses in his preliminary 'Author's Note', 'the dislocated and discordant society in which Sozaboy must live, move and have not his being' (my emphasis), confirms that the total annihilation he wreaks upon Mene is consciously intended. 'War is war' and this is what war does to people.
Sozaboy may portray a 'dislocated and discordant society'  but Mene continues to make plans for himself and his mother until the latter stages of the novel. Even when Duzia finally brings home to him the truth of his situation he is only capable of measuring the extent of his loss because he is able to refer to the vision which he has been pursuing in different forms throughout the novel: his wish to become a 'big man', a soza, or return to a peaceful family life. Each of Mene's ambitions may be figured by an unattainable dream but this does not make Sozaboy a novel of despair. Quite the contrary. But it is a novel which closes at the moment Mene is condemned to enter a new phase of life where all grounds for optimism have finally been laid waste. The despair starts as the novel ends. 
Probably the most striking difference between Mene and the protagonist of Allah n'est pas obligé, Birahima, is the fact that despair is apparently the starting point for the young Malinké. His fate has been decided by events in his early childhood which have already ruined his life. His experiences as a boy soldier are thus accumulated in a context of hopelessness similar to that which Mene is about to enter as he departs from Dukana. Allah n'est pas obligé would thus appear to be the antithesis of a Bildungsroman. Birahima's experiences cannot be formative because they cannot be inserted within a developmental framework. His development has been arrested by the misunderstanding which triggered the failure of his relationship with his mother. Birahima presents himself from the outset as a person condemned: 'suis maudit parce que j'ai fait du mal à ma mère. Chez les nègres noirs africains indigènes, quand tu as fâché ta maman et si elle est morte avec cette colère dans son coeur elle te maudit, tu as la malédiction'. [Allah, p.12] As so often with Kourouma, the motivation for decisive events in the narrative is only readable from within a logical framework which is highly culturally specific. In this instance the Malinké/Bambara beliefs concerning witchcraft are invoked as Birahima's mother is accused of being the leader of a group of witches and involved in ritual killings ('le chef de tous les sorciers et mangeurs d'âmes du village' [Allah, p.27-28]). Birahima's repulsion and rejection of his mother cause an estrangement that lasts until her death. Only then does the child realise that the accusations were false but the damage has already been done: 'j'avais fait du mal à ma maman, beaucoup de mal. Du mal à une handicapée. Ma maman ne m'a rien dit mais elle est morte avec la mauvaiseté dans le coeur. J'avais ses malédictions, la damnation. Je ne ferais rien de bon sur terre. Je ne vaudrais jamais quelque chose sur cette terre' [Allah, p.29] and, 'J'ai blessé maman, elle est morte avec la blessure au coeur. Donc je suis maudit, je traîne la malédiction partout où je vais'. [Allah, p.33]
Birahima has an operative system of beliefs but it is a system which has foreclosed on any potential for influencing future actions. For Birahima the worst has already happened and his wish to become a boy soldier can be seen as a way of embracing the destiny of damnation he knows to be his. The moral climate of the novel is thus one of perfect stasis. As a moral being Birahima evolves no further than the state he has already reached when he sketches his own portrait at the beginning of the novel: the subsequent atrocities perpetrated by him, his fellow child soldiers and other characters, merely accumulate additional examples of horror without significantly modifying the atmosphere of ethical degradation which pervades the novel. His belief system merely provides a mechanism for confirming and providing a rationale for the fact that he is irrecuperable.
So, unlike Mene, Birahima is not given to interrogating events in an effort to understand his experiences, partly because his belief system has already provided the answers to all the major questions. The portrait he offers of himself at the opening of the novel includes, for example, an acknowledgement that he is pursued by evil spirits because he has killed innocent people:
The way this information is conveyed establishes a pattern for the rest of the novel. Whatever appalling circumstances of murder, rape or brutalisation Birahima is called upon to narrate he will give the facts of the case without seeking to provide mitigating or justificatory motives or to evaluate the consequences. There is a phenomenological simplicity about Birahima which is encapsulated in the phrase which recurs throughout the novel 'C'est la guerre tribale qui voulait ça' [Allah, p.61 et passim] - a phrase which has been prefigured in the refrain from Sozaboy which is so often the only explanation available to Mene: 'war is war'. 
Like Mene, Birahima is not fighting for a cause. But whereas in Sozaboy, Saro-Wiwa makes no attempt to bring the 'causes' of the war, or the ideological distinctions that might underpin them, into his novel, Allah n'est pas obligé is saturated with detail about the various factions and personalities locked in combat. These two contrasting tactics have the same outcome, however, in that the underlying reasons for the conflicts remain shrouded in mystery. The details Birahima provides add nothing to the simple explanation he gives at the outset, they merely provide an accumulation of examples to prove his point:
The region has descended into a state of lawlessness and, in this description of what ensues, Birahima's use of pronouns allows him to distance himself from the various parties involved, thus identifying himself as one of the innocent victims of this state of affairs. Indeed he is all the more a victim because he has little option but to join in the process and become a bandit himself. If readers come to the text seeking an explanation as to how children can become entangled in such atrocities, they need look no further than this. When lawlessness and authority break down, appetites and apathy conjointly work to ensure that responsibility as well as riches are shared by a wide circle of people.
Given the number of factions involved, it is all the more surprising that Birahima manages to switch sides so often that, at various stages in the novel, he ends up fighting on behalf of all four of the 'quatre bandits de grand chemin: Doe, Taylor, Johnson, El Hadj Koroma' [Allah, p.53] whom he identifies as the main players in Liberia's tribal war.  If he does so, it is because Kourouma constructs his picaresque narrative around the vague notion of a quest. Birahima is ostensibly seeking to renew contact with the aunt responsible for his upbringing following the death of his mother. Thus, Birahima's peregrinations through war-torn Liberia and Sierra Leone are periodically linked to the notion of finding refuge in family ties. Throughout the novel the link is portrayed as extremely tenuous however, and the problem of surviving the moment dominates the greater part of the narrative. As is the case for Mene at the end of Sozaboy, the link with the family finally dissolves for Birahima too, when he learns that his aunt has died in the very refugee camp where he is serving as a boy soldier. Symbolically, the end of the quest is the point at which Birahima inherits the dictionaries from the dead griot, Varrassouba, and these will serve to help him give voice to the terrible experiences he has witnessed.
Birahima's inheritance of the dictionaries, the event which leads him to the decision to narrate his adventures, focuses attention on the second major feature which is common to both Sozaboy and Allah n'est pas obligé, namely their general preoccupation with language as a medium. Both novels employ a first person narrator, each of whom possesses restricted linguistic competence in the language he uses to construct his narrative. This clearly has consequences for the style of the narrative itself and accounts for many of the distinctive features of each.  But over and above the question of style (the 'rotten English' of Mene and the equally 'rotten French' of Birahima) it is noticable that the European language used in each of the novels is treated as a material to be consciously fashioned and which is continuously subjected to commentary.
In the case of Birahima the process involves his use of the dictionaries (the Larousse, the Petit Robert, the 'Inventaire des particularités lexicales du français en Afrique noire' and Harrap's) and it is tempting to take at face value his constant recourse to them as a mechanism which will allow him to translate relevant words for the benefit of the different audiences for which his narrative is intended: 'Il faut expliquer parce que mon blablabla est à lire par toute sorte de gens: des toubabs (toubab signifie blanc) colons, des noirs indigènes sauvages d'Afrique et des francophones de tout gabarit (gabarit signifie genre).' [Allah, p.11] But through other narrative devices Birahima successfully 'translates' an enormous amount of material that is culturally alien to many Western readers, and which it is necessary for them to understand, but without drawing attention to the fact that he is doing so. Moreover, the vast majority of the glosses simply provide synonymous expressions and there is no reason to suppose that an African whose French is so limited that he does not understand, for example, the word 'insolent' will cope any better with understanding Birahima's gloss: 'qui, par son caractère extraordinaire, apparaît comme un défi à la condition commune'. [Allah, p.180] Similarly, the translation of African terms, for example: 'partir gnona-gnona. (ce qui signifie, d'après Inventaire, dare-dare.)' [Allah, p.99] is self-defeating since the French expression is thus inscribed in the text anyway. It may, of course, be argued that such a procedure at least ensures an African quality to the narrative but the cost is so high and the process so blatantly self-referential, that such an explanation is unconvincing. It would be patronising to see them as an attempt to assist a clumsy narrator in doing his job. They have to be evaluated in terms of the actual effects they generate within the narrative as given.
The phenomenon of Birahima's glosses merits a study of its own. Suffice it to say here that the doubling of words by a synonym (that is, the internal translation of French into French) is as pointless as the translation of African words into French, since the process involved is far more clumsy and introduces far greater obstacles to the narrative flow than if some other device had been adopted. Nor do the glosses serve very well in convincing us that Birahima is linguistically naïve. On the contrary, I would argue that they can be usefully viewed as real events in the narrative, of a different order but of equal significance to the 'physical' events that are conventionally seen as constitutive of the narrative chain. As such they have manifold purposes and significances and, when readers interrogate them (just as they interrogate any other aspect of the novel's textuality), they are generating manifold readings and interpretations of them. One example may serve to illustrate the point. Birahima explains at one point how thieves are dealt with in Sanniquellié. If a thief is caught he is put to the question: 'S'il répond oui, il est condamné à mort. S'il répond non, il est confondu par les témoins et il est également condamné à mort. (Confondre signifie réduire quelqu'un au silence en prouvant qu'il a commis la faute.). [Allah, p.111-12] The shocking denial of due judicial process and the insignificant value placed on human life that this way of treating alleged thieves implies, appears to merit no comment from Birahima. His immediate concern is to gloss the potentially problematic verb 'confondre'. What better way of underscoring the nature of the topsy-turvy universe he inhabits, the extent to which he has been obliged to become innured to such brutality, the fact that he too is a victim, a castaway in a world where dictionaries alone can provide him with some residual faith in the notion of authority, a world where lexical commentary, by entirely evacuating the moral dimension from lived events and thereby possibly making experience bearable, allows him to continue to function (as narrator? as character?), and so on?
The patently superficial way that Birahima deals with language as a material to be manipulated is highly significant. The surface semantics of so many of the glosses suggests that language is being used, at very least, as a screen which can be interposed between himself and the unacceptable nature of the reality it is supposed to express.
What Kourouma's novel describes is an extreme situation in which the brutalising effects of violence and general lawlessness threaten to dehumanise those caught up within its logic. The situation is so extreme that the real question to emerge is whether Birahima and his ilk manage to remain within the fold of 'the human'? None of Birahima's efforts to explain the various words and concepts he uses shed any light on this question. Indeed, their arbitrary, random nature (why gloss this word and not that?) demonstrates that their purpose lies elsewhere. However much they may betray about Birahima they are intended, as he makes clear, for the benefit of the reader. The dictionary references ensure that the reader's need to understand Birahima is figured in the novel as a visible trope. It is the drama of the reader's difficulty in reducing such recalcitrant difference to some form of sameness, signifying common humanity, that is connoted by the recourse to dictionaries. 
There is no corresponding drama involving a putative need on the part of Birahima to be understood. Birahima has no such need and his indifference to the opinion of others is vividly expressed on a number of occasions. He dismissively refers to his own narrative as a 'blablabla' and '[s]es salades'. [Allah, p.9] Thereafter, he frequently addresses his readers in a way that makes it clear that his indifference to them borders on outright contempt, as the following example illustrates:
Many of the numerous additional examples of Birahima's displaying a disrespectful, not to say contemptuous, attitude towards his readers occur in close proximity to reminders that 'Allah is not obliged...' either. (See, for example, pp. 152, 154, 157, 192, 194 and 198.) Kourouma seems to be drawing a parallel between Birahima's insistence on total narrative freedom (the right to behave as he likes qua narrator) and the notion that Allah does as he pleases too, even to the extent of allowing such horrific injustice and suffering to be visited upon his creatures. So, what goes for Allah also goes for the narrator: if Allah has so little respect for his creatures why should the narrator be expected to have any more for his readers?
This tendency is not unconnected with Birahima's predilection for punctuating his narrative with obscenities: 'Gnamokodé (bâtardise!)' and 'A faforo (cul de mon père!)', particularly since they, too, are frequently collocated with 'Walahé (au nom d'Allah!)'. While it is true that such language is not out of place in the narrative of a child murderer, inured to killings and the use of hard drugs, (and indeed the use of a higher register would be anomalous and frankly ludicrous). 
The language of Birahima's narrative is remarkable stylistically, because it is designed to be appropriate for Birahama the character, just as in earlier novels Kourouma has expended great effort to match character and modes of dicourse.  But it is also remarkable because the dictionary references which litter the novel confirm that even if Birahima does not interrogate his experiences he at least interrogates language. In this respect he is comparable to Djigui, the protagonist of Monnè, outrages et défis, whose life is turned upside down in similarly traumatic ways on the arrival of French colonial troops in his kingdom. Faced with a trauma of such incomprehensible proportions his reaction is to question language itself and, in doing so, to re-assess the appropriateness of his own language as a tool for expressing the new realities he is experiencing: 'Chaque fois que les mots changent de sens et les choses de symboles, je retourne à la terre qui m'a vu naître pour tout recommencer: réapprendre l'histoire et les nouveaux noms des hommes, des animaux et des choses'.  In the midst of a more modern trauma, Birahima does much the same.
The claim is frequently made that Kourouma's writing succeeds in creating a hybrid language by grafting the French of the colonial 'masters' on to an African rootstock. The same might equally well be said of the variant of English Saro-Wiwa creates in Sozaboy. But whereas all of Kourouma's four novels to date have involved the slow and painstaking process of working on language in order to create the exact flavour he requires, Saro-Wiwa's prolific and varied output (including novels, plays, poems, journalism, autobiography, polemical works and television screenplays) is largely in 'standard' English. The 'rotten English' he creates for Mene is an exception and he himself viewed it as an experiment, as he explains in the 'Author's Note'. Mene's language is 'a mixture of Nigerian pidgin English, broken English and occasional flashes of good, even idiomatic English' which 'borrows words, patterns and images freely from the mother-tongue and finds expression in a very limited English vocabulary'. 
The characteristic stylistic features of Mene's language have been amply discussed elsewhere.  What is perhaps worth repeating here, however, is the fact that the variant of English he uses is far from socially (and to an extent, politically) neutral, and this fact is embedded into the project which Saro-Wiwa embarks upon as he pursues the experiment of writing Sozaboy. Bracketed around the comments I have already quoted on the style of rotten English are comments which connect it to its social origins and invite readers to interrogate a whole set of social (and political) relationships at the same time as they interrogate Mene's language. He writes, for instance: The language is disordered and disorderly. Born of a mediocre education and severely limited opportunities [...] It thrives on lawlessness, and is part of the dislocated and discordant society in which Sozaboy must live'. [Sozaboy: 'Author's Note']
Several things follow from this invitation to see connections between the linguistic and the social. As a work of postcolonial fiction, the novel is inevitably caught up in a web of historical and cultural relationships between the former colonial metropolis and the former colony. These relationships are the inescapable context within which events unfold and they inevitably cast a shadow which it is difficult to ignore. The language which Mene is consciously or unconsciously subverting, diverting and twisting into new shapes, perhaps innocently in order to express new realities, is nevertheless a European language and, in the not too distant past, was jealously defended as a repository of the cultural values of the British Empire.
But even within the specifically Nigerian context, the connections between the linguistic and the socio-political are highly significant. Mene's wish to make something of his life is expressed not simply in terms of schemes which embody his ambitions and aspirations, it is readable also in his attitude to the language he uses. When Mene is obliged to leave school, for example, he sees this as a setback to his prospects: 'I wanted to be big man like lawyer or doctor riding car and talking big big English. In fact I used to know English in the school and every time I will try to read any book that I see'. [Sozaboy, p.11] So when he begins work as an apprentice driver he makes real efforts to improve his competence: 'I am learning new new things. In the motor park, I must speak English with the other drivers and apprentice and passengers' and, 'I will use some of the money to buy the books and improve my English'. [Sozaboy, p.12] Mene's consciousness of the importance of levels of competence in English (his own and that of other characters) is closely bound up with the progress of the major event of the narrative: his decision to become a soldier and his experience of the soldier's life. The speech made by the 'man with fine shirt' urging young men to join the army is a case in point:
Mene's quoting of items of language in this decontextualised way serves to denaturalise them and make them an object of scrutiny. In a way not dissimilar to Birahima's use of dictionaries, the language is thus reified, objectified and transformed into an alien material to be treated with respect. The fact that this incident is, in fact, part of a dream sequence which Mene inserts into his narrative, underscores the extent to which it can be read as a symptom of deep psychic disturbance. The speech is literally awe-inspiring and despite the fear it arouses in Mene it contributes to his decision to enlist in the army and has a decisive influence on his life.
Command of English can thus be seen as a marker of other things in the novel: it connotes social condition and attitudes to social mobility, but also the individual's position in relation to power structures and ultimately the possibility of manipulation and betrayal. But the irony pervading the whole of Sozaboy is such that while readers may recognise the dangers of 'long long grammar', Mene tends to be merely impressed. The Chief Commander General who addresses Mene's unit on the passing-out parade is another highly competent speaker and uses 'Fine fine grammar. "We shall overcome. The Enemy will be vanquished. God is on our side" [Sozaboy, p.78]: the old arguments, which Mene savours superficially as examples of language, rather than because he adheres to the sentiments they convey. Mene's fellow-soldier, Bullet, is also a competent speaker of English and the ambivalence of the role he briefly plays in the novel is consonant with the paradox of such a person's presence among the non-commissioned troops. His fraternising with the double agent, Manmuswak, sets in train a sequence of events which leads to his murdering the Captain and which Mene rightly analyses as ultimately a determining factor in his death.
It is not surprising, in a postcolonial context, that so many of the key issues foregrounded by these two novels should be explored concurrently with an exploration of the resources and limits of language. It may simply be that postcolonial literatures inevitably and unavoidably figure a whole range of linguistic tensions and are therefore particularly apt at reminding us that the any interrogation of experience ultimately implies a simultaneous interrogation of language itself. And naturally enough, when the experiences are of such an extreme nature as those represented by Saro-Wiwa and Kourouma, the sense that a new language needs to be forged in order to articulate the uniqueness of the horror they involve, is all the more understandable.
But we should not lose sight of the fact that the perennial 'newness' and idiosyncracy of these narrative voices are in marked contrast to the very ordinariness of the characters themselves. Indeed it could be argued that it is the ordinariness of Mene and Birahima which is perhaps the most shocking aspect of their respective stories. Their ordinariness works above all to obliterate difference and alterity. Mene's experience invites readers to move into a realm beyond political particularisms and to share his own emerging sense of war as an amorphous, chaotic and essentially homogeneous experience of futility, incomprehensibility and alienation. In a similar way, Birahima's narrative somehow succeeds in making the incomprehensible brutality and violence of tribal war appear to be part of a logical and understandable sequence. And while the actions described in the novel are frequently repugnant and no mitigation of their horrific nature is offered, it by no means follows that Birahima and his fellow child-soldiers should be judged as harshly. They cannot easily be excluded from the fold of humanity and branded as inhuman criminals. On the contrary, the more readers understand how they have become embroiled in such horrors the more Birahima and his ilk are perceived as all too human victims and worthy of pity rather than condemnation. Such things too are part of the human condition which we all share and therefore worthy of our contemplation.
In the final analysis then, both novels can be seen as attempts to speak the unspeakable and reconfigure the boundaries of sameness and difference. They both go some way to making the unspeakable and the incomprehensible readable. If, as I claimed at the outset, these novels are examples of a new, archetypal postcolonial topos involving the descent into chaos, it may well be because, in an era dominated by the emerging mythologies of globalisation, these extreme conditions are the only territory where literature can reformulate for a wider, non-Western audience the eternal questions about what it is to be part of this shared condition of humanity.
 Ahmadou Kourouma, Allah n'est pas obligé (Paris: Seuil, 2000) and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Sozaboy (1985, New York: Longman, 'Longman African Writers' series, 1998). Madeleine Borgomano's review of Kourouma's novel draws on the comparison with Sozaboy. See 'Kourouma, Ahmadou, Allah n'est pas obligé' in Etudes Littéraires Africaines, no 10, December 2000.
 Not wishing to allow the facts of the case to get in the way of the comparison I am seeking to make, I have taken it as read that Mene is a quintessentially child-like character rather than literally a child. The fact that he is old enough to marry and that his wife, Agnes, admires the hairs on his chest are clear indications that Mene is, in fact, a young man.
 In his own writings Saro-Wiwa consistently refused to use an upper case 'B' for the words 'Biafra/Biafran'. His lack of sympathy with the secessionists cause is thus inscribed very literally in texts such as On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War (London, Lagos, Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1989).
 Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, (London: Faber and Faber, 1958).
 'The civil war had many angles to it. I have already dealt with its impact on the common people in fictional form in my novel Sozaboy [...] My particular interest in this book is my personal experience.' On a Darkling Plain, p.9. On the same page, Saro-Wiwa explains, 'I delayed its publication in deference to the process of reconciliation.'
 Ibid. p.10. In his brief introduction to the Longman edition of the novel, William Boyd neatly explains why the oppression of ethnic minorities was an inseparable part of the Biafran conflict: 'When he [General Ojukwu] declared Biafra independent [...] like it or not, some thirty or so other ethnic groups were included in the new country. Like it or not, these other tribes found themselves at war against Nigeria.'
 For harrowing details of the role of Shell-BP in Rivers State and the connivence of the Nigerian Federal government with their activities, see Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy (Lagos, Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1992). Significantly, the chapter entitled 'The Shell-BP role' (pp. 44-83) is preceded by a chapter entitled 'The Civil War' (pp. 25-43), thus amply demonstrating the links and progression between the two sets of events which characterise Saro-Wiwa's own analysis.
 I am thinking here of many of the articles published in his Sunday Times column, 'Similia', a selection of which were republished under the same name by Saro-Wiwa's own publishing house: Similia (London, Lagos, Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1990). The autobiographical work was published posthumously: A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary (New York: Penguin, 1995).
 'Sozaboy is a bildungsroman (sic), a novel of growth and development', Charles Nnolim, 'Saro-Wiwa's World and His Craft in Sozaboy' in C. Nnolim (Ed.), Critical Essays in Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1992), p. 78.
 If Mene's experience teaches him anything it is the senselessness of trying to distinguish between 'us' and 'them': all soldiers are the same. He summarises the idea thus: 'As you know, I call all of them sozas now because I have seen that they are all two and two pence. I will not allow anybody to tell me that this is enemy and the other one is not enemy. They are all doing the same thing'. [Sozaboy, p.139]
 Sozaboy: 'Author's Note'
 'As I was going, I looked at the place where my mama house used to stand. And tears began to drop like rain from my eyes. I walked quickly from my own town Dukana and in fact I did not know where I was going. And as I was going, I was just thinking how the war have spoiled my town Dukana, uselessed many people, killed many others, killed my mama and my wife, Agnes, my beautiful young wife with J.J.C. and now it have made me like porson wey get leprosy because I have no town again'. [Sozaboy, p.181]
 A similar echo between the two texts is to be found in the frequent repetition of the title of Kourouma's novel, expanded within the text to its complete and definitive version: 'Allah n'est pas obligé d'être juste dans toutes ses choses ici-bas' (Kourouma's emphasis) [Allah, p.9] in much the same way that Sozaboy frequently echoes 'God no gree bad thing!' [Sozaboy, p.80]. The religion and the precise sentiments may differ from one novel to the other but the reflex of appealing to a divine authority for some sense of permanence, is common to both.
 Birahima's enrolment into the forces of the various factions can be tracked as follows: Taylor's NPFL (p. 61); Doe's ULIMO (p.109); Johnson's faction (p.140) and the ranks of El Hadj Koroma (p.187). The reference to the conflict as a 'tribal' rather than a civil war is, of course, not innocent: despite the ease with which Birahima, a Malinké, moves from camp to camp, his narrative makes it clear that tribal affiliations (i.e., cultural differences) are one of the key structuring elements in the conflict (as opposed, for example, to ideological or political differences).
 Ever since the publication of his first novel, Les Soleils des indépendances (1968), Kourouma's reputation as a novelist has, to a considerable extent, been founded on the originality of his style. See especially, Makhily Gassama, La Langue d'Ahmadou Kourouma ou le français sous le soleil d'Afrique (Paris: ACCT - Karthala, 1995), and Madeleine Borgomano, Ahmadou Kourouma, Le Guerrier-Griot (Paris: l'Harmattan, 1998), pp. 40-43 et passim.
 Todorov suggests,'connaître l'autre et soi est une seule et même chose' [Tzvetan Todorov, Nous et les autres (Paris: Seuil, 1989), p. 31] but by the same token, if we are unable to comprehend Birahima's radical alterity, one consequence is that it is our own humanity which is ultimately called into question.
 A further example of the narrator's independence occurs a few pages later: 'Je refuse de les décrire [les mines] parce que je suis un enfant de la rue et je fais ce que je veux, je m'en fous de tout le monde.' [Allah, p.115].
 There is perhaps more than a suggestion that Kourouma is not entirely consistent in maintaining the tone of the narrative voice. Birahima, who spends so much of his time consulting dictionaries in order to provide glosses of basically unproblematic words and phrases, tends, towards the end of the novel, to lapse into modes of official discourse (journalism; the discourse of administrations and quasi-governmental organisations) without feeling the need to provide any glosses whatsoever. For an example, see Allah, p. 208.
 Kourouma has often explained that the Malinké rhythms and hybridised French of Les Soleils des indépendances were dictated by the need to find an appropriate voice in which to express the realities of Fama's world. Kourouma formulates this point very clearly in various interviews. See, for example: J. Chevrier, Notre Librairie, no 60, (Paris: CLEF, 1981), p.70, and, M. Zalessky, 'La Langue: un habit cousu pour qu'il moule bien' in Diagonales, no 7, Juillet, 1988. No doubt, mutatis mutandi, the same is true for Birahima.
 Ahmadou Kourouma, Monnè, outrages et défis (Paris: Seuil, 1990), p. 41.
 Sozaboy: Author's Note. Saro-Wiwa also uses the phrase 'rotten English' when referring to one of the characters in Basi and Company: 'Madam spoke different Englishes according to her mood. Sometimes she spoke standard English, at other times pidgin English, and she had an English reserved for the most vicious moments - rotten English which was a mixture of all types of English, her mother-tongue which she hardly ever spoke, and the predominant Yoruba of Adetola Street.' Basi and Company (Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1987), p.30.
 For a treatment of the style of Saro-Wiwa's 'Rotten English' see Asomwan S. Adagboyin, 'The Language of Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy' in C. Nnolim (Ed.), Critical Essays in Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1992), pp. 30-38, and Maureen N. Eke, 'The Novel: Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English' in C.W. McLuckie and A. McPhail (Eds.), Ken Saro-Wiwa Writer and Political Activist, (Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), pp. 87-106.
Patrick Corcoran is Principal Lecturer in French at the University of Surrey
Roehampton where he is Director of the Centre for Research in Francophone
Studies. He is currently President of ASCALF (Association for the Study of
Caribbean and African Literature in French) soon to become the Society for
Francophone Postcolonial Studies.
He has published widely on the African francophone novel. His most recent book is a critical study of Henri Lopes' Le Pleurer-Rire published in the Glasgow Introductory Guides to French Literature (2002). A study of Ferdinand Oyono's Une vie de boy & Le Vieux Nègre et la médaille will be published by Grant and Cutler in early 2003. He has contributed chapters on Kourouma to two forthcoming books: C.Rolfe and Y. Rocheron (Eds.), Shifting Frontiers of France and 'Francophonie', Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, and K. Salih (Ed.), French in and out of France: language policies, intercultural antagonisms and dialogue, Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang.