Memories of a child soldier

“What harm can we endure without being broken inside? And how much of this evil are we able to inflict on others without getting upset? Asks Isaiah, a former child soldier of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and narrator ofBefore the terrible years, dense and dark novel by Victor del Arbol. Well-versed in thrillers, the Catalan author uses his studies in history to relive from the inside the time when Joseph Kony, known as the Bloody Messiah, instigated a coup against Uganda from the Congo.

Having immigrated to Spain at the age of 17 in the 1990s, Isaiah now runs a small workshop in Barcelona where he repairs bicycles. With his partner, Lucia, they are expecting their first child. When a former comrade in arms convinces him to return to Kampala, Uganda, to attend a conference on national reconciliation, he understands too late that he has been tricked.

Related in two stages – the youth of Isaiah and his return to adulthood in Uganda -, Before the terrible years is at the same time a cruel tale of learning, a bloody war drama, a breathless game of cat and mouse and a dazzling descent into the abysses of the human soul. In this murdered childhood novel, where Isaiah reveals how the ruthless Kony and his minions turned boys into killing machines, like Joel, his nine-year-old brother, and girls into sex slaves, like Lawino, daughter of a journalist murdered for his ideas, the narrator keeps asking questions to which he cannot find answers. “I ask the question again: what do adults earn who steal childhoods? What sort of hole do they claim to fill? “

Having for bedside book In the heart of darkness, by Joseph Conrad, the young Isaiah tries to understand through the character of Mr. Kurtz, this monster that Brando embodied in Apocalypse Now, of Coppola, the motivations of his executioners. Delivering himself to introspection, he clings to his happy memories in order to preserve the particle of humanity that remains in him despite the horror of which he is at the same time victim, witness and responsible. A slow path to resilience with a subtle evocative power.

Before the terrible years

★★★ 1/2

Victor del Arbol, translated from the Spanish by Claude Bleton, Actes Sud, Paris, 2021, 397 pages

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