Future D. Fidel
The author of this first novel is a young playwright from Brisbane by way of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The narrator, Isa Alaki, is a young prize-fighter who’s ended up in Brisbane by way of the same place, but there the biographies diverge.
From somewhat uncertain vantage, Isa tells the reader of his childhood in the Congo with his brother Moïse, their recruitment by rebels and deployment as child soldiers, their shifts to violent perpetrators “learning the ways of a soldier. The ways of a beast”, the harrowing and convincingly dissociative moment when Isa leaves the war without Moïse, Isa’s semi-recovery and adolescence as a beggar in Nairobi, and finally, in the back half, his twenty-something years in Australia, going to the Sarina Russo Institute and training to fight. There, he wonders what really happened on the day he lost Moïse. Getting the right answers would be complicated – he can’t give out too much identifying information without risking being pegged as a war criminal.
It’s adapted from a play, and while it isn’t testimony – because it isn’t true – it benefits from a certain directness of voice, a feeling that the narrator is speaking straight to you and that you’re standing with them in a room. Later you notice some structural flaws – he undergoes a big personality shift in those Nairobi years, not all of it documented – but at the time, it’s all about the monologue. The sentences are punchy, which makes good sense when Isa is young and makes better sense when Isa is a child soldier, because it has him seem both constantly scary and constantly scared. It makes a bit less sense when he’s older, but these are grimmer years, and it conveys an idea of life moving faster than the character can keep up with.
The strongest parts of Isa’s personality don’t all go together, but they’re very memorable pieces on their own. He’s likeable when he breaks down “refugee” as if it were an acronym: “Relentlessly Exceptional, Firm and Unbreakable but Grateful for Every Exile.” He’s loose and thoughtful when the story breaks out into allusive italics, sections that showcase a gift for different pacing and different voice. In the end though, there’s a pleasing murkiness to Isa that matches the pleasing murkiness to the lessons of the book. He’s a hard one to figure out, but few would come through this character’s experiences while remaining wholly themselves. CR
Hachette Australia, 288pp, $26.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Future D. Fidel, Prize Fighter". Subscribe here.