Repetition in Allah is Not Obliged

Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel Allah is Not Obliged makes heavy use of repetition in both language and structure to underline its themes on tribal war, child soldiers, and violence in Western Africa. The story is extremely voice-driven – irreverently narrated by an orphan boy named Birahima as he travels through Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, ostensibly searching for his aunt but also frequently conscripted to serve as a child solider for various warlords. One is therefore tempted at first to view the repetition as a feature of his voice only, but over time it becomes clear that it functions within the novel’s structure and theme as well.

The repetition starts on a small scale, with Birahima’s constant reference from page one to the definitions of various terms (he explains that he’s telling the story with the help of four dictionaries, to which he constantly refers). You can turn to almost any page and find an example. On page 7: “All round the hearth there were kanaris (According to the Glossary, a kanaris is a handcrafted earthenware jar.)” Or page 142: “He started by sending an ultimatum to the mother superior, Saint Marie-Beatrice. (An ‘ultimatum’ is a proposal that is not open to discussion.)” These definitions are a feature that repeats throughout the book. Similarly, the narrator repeats several other stock phrases multiple times during the story. He constantly refers to himself and his traveling companion Yacouba, for example, with some variation of “the blameless, fearless street kid” and “the Muslim grigriman, the crippled crook” respectively (pages 125, 156, 172, 176, 187, 196). He also repeatedly says that he is “not obliged to” give a funeral oration for a dead soldier he doesn’t wish to memorialize (pages 107, 139, 144, 177). Even more obviously, the repetition sometimes appears within sentences and paragraphs themselves, such as page 78: “Inebriated with alcohol, Colonel Papa Le Bon headed off to the prison (‘inebriated’ means ‘under the influence’). Inebriated, Colonel Papa Le Bon headed off on his own – all on his own – to the prison.” There are other instances where nearly identical stories are told, often within pages of each other, and the exact same vocabulary and sentence structure is used for each.

Yet the repetition isn’t merely a function of the language, but also plays a significant role in the structure of the novel. Birahima’s travels are a journey through largely repetitive experiences – conscripted into a warlord’s army, drugged and forced to fight, then eventually escaping when the warlord is captured or killed, only to repeat with the next warlord. And the warlords themselves mostly blend together as characters – each of whom is basically charismatic, capricious, emotional, violent, and sexually predatory, to greater or lesser degrees. Their stories all take similar arcs, as do the stories of those child soldiers whom Birahima does give funeral orations for. While the particulars might change a little, the general stories are the same (and, in all cases, end in death).

The novel doesn’t follow a traditional plot from beginning to end, but rather traces all these threads and characters wherever they lead, creating a narrative that’s more like a series of concentric circles than a straight line. This is even illustrated in the novel’s closing paragraph, which is literally a copy of its opening paragraph, effectively closing the loop of the story. All of this repetition works together to give the reader a sense of the extreme, cyclical violence and suffering experienced by those caught within the tribal wars in places like Liberia or Cote d’Ivoire. They are, from the perspective of the novel, endless – and endlessly the same.

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