The King's Rifleby Biyi Bandele
It's winter 1944 and the Second World War is entering its most crucial state. A few months ago fourteen-year-old Ali Banana was a blacksmith's apprentice in his rural hometown in West Africa; now he's trekking through the Burmese jungle. Led by the unforgettably charismatic Sergeant Damisa, the unit has been given orders to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc.
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It's winter 1944 and the Second World War is entering its most crucial state. A few months ago fourteen-year-old Ali Banana was a blacksmith's apprentice in his rural hometown in West Africa; now he's trekking through the Burmese jungle. Led by the unforgettably charismatic Sergeant Damisa, the unit has been given orders to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. But Japanese snipers lurk behind every tree—and even if the unit manages to escape, infection and disease lie in wait. Homesick and weary, the men of D-Section Thunder Brigade refuse to give up.
Taut and immediate, The King's Rifle is the first novel to depict the experiences of black African soldiers in the Second World War. This is a story of real life battles, of the men who made the legend of the Chindits, the unconventional, quick-strike division of the British Army in India. Brilliantly executed, this vividly realized account details the madness, sacrifice, and dark humor of that war's most vicious battleground. It is also the moving story of a boy trying to live long enough to become a man.
During World War II, a renegade British army officer, Orde Charles Wingate, was plucked from his desk job to help drive the Japanese from the jungles of Burma. A pioneer in controversial guerrilla tactics, Colonel Wingate organized quick-strike units of African soldiers -- called the Chindits -- that were specially trained to penetrate deep behind enemy lines.
Nigerian writer Bandele is the son of one of Wingate's men, and he grew up listening to his father's vivid stories of the war. In his finely executed and powerful novel, he mines his father's experiences along with his own extensive research about the Burma campaign, to create an immediate, brutal, and true account of the jungle conflict, which has seemingly been forgotten in the annals of World War II. His hero is Farabiti Banana, an underage boy from a village in northern Nigeria. Banana lies about his age to join the king's war, honored to fight for his countrymen and the respect of his friends.
Already being compared to Discover Award winner Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, Bandele's vital yet terse prose captures the dark humor of Banana and his comrades-in-arms as they confront the torturous jungle conditions of ghostly Japanese snipers perched in the trees, the constant presence of death, and the numbing anxiety of war. (Summer 2009 Selection)
One of the young African men in this WWII novel is so proud of his new military boots that he hangs them by the laces around his neck and starts a fashion trend in his village, providing one of many powerful and poignant images that fill Bandele's distinctive first novel. The story chronicles the Chindits, a band of African soldiers enlisted by the British military and sent to Burma to fight the Japanese. Among them is Farabiti Banana, a 14-year-old Nigerian who becomes a soldier to follow the lead of his friends and hopes the military will make him a man. Once out of training, life becomes increasingly dangerous for Banana and his eight fellow Chindits, and by the novel's climax, he's become a man, but at a great cost. Bandele favors a straight-ahead style fueled by imagery and wordplay, and his perspective on heavily traveled literary territory is refreshing and even endearing. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Read an Excerpt
The King's Rifle
Two years into the war, on a day so hot and stifling the usually bustling thoroughfares of Cairo were all but deserted, a spare, dishevelled looking Englishman with a stooping gait staggered through the city's dark alleyways and bazaars, jostling with horses, camels, bicycles, mopeds, pushcarts, pedestrians and cars, looking, he said, for a chemist. To every hawker he approached and tried to speak to, on narrow, congested streets wafting with the odour of ginger, cumin, sandalwood and mint; and at every shisha-pipe-smoke-filled coffee house he wandered into, it seemed, as he struggled to speak but seemed only to slur, that he was looking for something which existed only in his fever-sapped imagination; that much was clear, that this strange man, dressed in a British army uniform that hung loosely on his shrunken frame, and wearing a major's rank, was in the grips of a fierce and crippling fever. He shivered under the blistering heat, his teeth clattering as if he were in the deep chill of an English winter's day.
'Chemist,' he mouthed. 'Atabrine.' But the words came out in a meaningless slur. Clearly the man was ill. And yet his deep-set, pale blue eyes glared defiantly from a bony, thin face overgrown with a shaggy beard.
Curses and insults followed him as he staggered from one side of the street to the other without looking where he was going, and as he crossed the road back and back again without any apparent concern for his life or for oncoming traffic. A donkey-cart messenger who ended up in a sewage drain when he swerved to avoid the man ran after him and heartily wished divorce on his parents; ajitney driver who stepped on his brakes only just in time leaned out of his car and threatened, firstly, to impregnate the officer's mother, and secondly, to make a cuckold of him, and thirdly, to run him over next time. Then, in swift contrition, and asking God to forgive him for the sins of his mouth, the driver bundled the crazed British officer into his car and, having failed to draw out a lucid response when he asked where to take him, drove straight to the Continental Hotel in the city centre, which everyone knew was packed with Allied officers. There he palmed him off to the concierge, like an unwanted gift, and dashed back to his car, speeding off before the loathsome offering could be forced back on him. The driver need not have worried. He had brought Major Wingate back to the right place.
The concierge's face was creased with worry.
'Is the major all right?' he asked.
The major was far from all right. But the ride in the car seemed to have given him back his tongue. 'Take your filthy hands off me,' he snapped. 'I am not a cripple.'
The concierge winced and then bowed apologetically. 'Of course, Major Wingate,' he said. 'Forgive me, sir. I was only trying to assist.'
Wingate was shaking violently, as if he was having a spasm. 'The only help I need right now,' he quivered, 'is Atabrine. I must have Atabrine.'
'Atabrine,' said the concierge. He considered the word, mouthed it a few times, tried various ways of pronouncing it, paused thoughtfully and then shook his head. 'The name sounds familiar, sir,' he said gravely.
'Atabrine, sir. Is he one of our guests?'
The world spun around Wingate as he headed into the lobby. He went to the reception desk, ignoring an officer calling out to him from the crowded bar. 'Tayib, Tayib,' he said with obvious relief when he saw the receptionist, 'get me some Atabrine.'
'But Major Wingate,' Tayib beamed solicitously, 'I got you a whole bottle of Atabrine only yesterday.'
'All gone,' Wingate muttered.
'All, sir?' A line of sweat broke out on the receptionist's brow.
'I took the last two tablets this morning.'
'That was meant to last a week,' Tayib said gently.
Behind Wingate, at the bar across the lobby, the colonel was waving.
'Someone is trying to catch your attention, sir.'
'Get me another week's dosage, will you, Tayib?' He sounded desperate.
'Colonel Mitchell, sir, is trying to tell you something.'
Wingate turned and looked, with evident distaste, at the colonel. 'Ape,' he hissed before swinging round again to face Tayib. 'Well?' he said.
'Doctor Hamid—' Tayib began.
'Indeed, sir. But the prescription I got you yesterday came from Doctor Hamid, and Doctor Hamid left Cairo only this morning to visit his father in Alexandria.'
'I need Atabrine. I'm putting my trust in you, Tayib. I'll be in my room.'
'I'll see what I can do, Major Wingate.'
The receptionist watched Wingate struggle unsteadily towards the lift. Then he called out to the concierge, 'Ahmed.'
The concierge sauntered over to the front desk.
'I need some Atabrine,' Tayib said.
'What happened to the batch I picked up yesterday from Doctor Hamid?'
'Can you or can you not get me some from your brother-in-law?'
'Why can't you get it from Doctor Hamid?'
'Why must you always answer a question with a question?' Tayib leaned closer and said, 'I got quite an earful from him yesterday when I telephoned for the batch you picked up.'
'Doctor Hamid loves the sound of his own voice. Especially when he's about to slap you with a heavy bill.'
'That wasn't the problem. The problem was that the major simply came to me and said, "Tayib, get me some Atabrine."'
'Naturally. He seems to think Atabrine grows on trees.'
'So I telephoned Doctor Hamid. And he said to me, "Where's the patient? Bring him here to my clinic," he said. "Tell him I want to see him."'
Atabrine was known to be toxic and unpredictable. Even when taken in the recommended dosage, the doctor explained to Tayib, it was sometimes impossible to tell its side-effects apart from the worst symptoms of the illness it was meant to cure. It had been known to induce a deep psychosis in some people and had sent others into a coma. It was crucial, Doctor Hamid said, to examine the patient before prescribing Atabrine. But Tayib knew that it was futile to go back to Wingate with such a message.The King's Rifle. Copyright © by Biyi Bandele. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Biyi Bandele is an award-winning novelist, playwright, and director. He was born in Nigeria and is the son of a veteran of the Burma campaign. The Independent named him one of Africa's fifty greatest artists. He lives in London.
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Bits of humor/irony mixed in with the tragedy of war. I chose this book because it was a new perspective on an often used topic. The characters are vivid and memorable.
This book reminded me very much of the writing of Rudyard Kipling, it is somewhat like Kim making his way throughout India. It is the story of an African teenage who does not have much hope of succeeding at home, and so sets out to make his career with the British Army. He has had a lot of hard luck in his life, but is still an innocent in many ways. The book is funny at some points, frightening at others. It is a very fast read. The ending seemed a little rushed, but that is often the case with good books; we want them to go on and on.