Anna's Reviews > The King's Rifle: A Novel

The King's Rifle by Biyi Bandele-Thomas
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Mar 12, 2009

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Read in March, 2009

Every now and then you read some galling statistic about how many American adults think the Germans attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1861, and if you’re like me (and really, you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t), you always feel a heady mix of horror and amour-propre. With a historically-minded papa and more books on WWII in the house than you could shake an Enfield at, I thought I was pretty well up on the conflict, so I was surprised and chagrined to learn of an entire theater I’d never heard about: Burma, where thousands of Japanese and British troops perished in brutal battle over some of the most inhospitable territory of the war. And, like so many discoveries of mine, it came through art: one night Turner Classic Movies broadcast the 1956 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, Kon Ichikawa’s haunting The Burmese Harp, about a young Japanese soldier’s quest to bury his fallen comrades; then, a few weeks later, I picked up The King’s Rifle, Nigerian writer Biyi Bandele’s stark, spare rendering of one West African soldier’s experiences during the campaign. (Realizing that Africans, as British colonials, played their own part in WWII was another humbling moment.)
Bandele, who lives in London, takes an ancient theme—the absurdity and suffering of war, old hat practically since the Iliad—and adds to it the only way any writer can, with a sharp and specific snapshot of an individual unwittingly taking part in the universal. Farabiti (dialect for “Private) Ali Banana is barely fourteen, but eagerly left his village to fight for Kingi Joji; shipped to Burma, he is deployed with the Chindits, a multicultural strike force that fought entirely behind Japanese lines. In graceful, dispassionate prose, Bandele chronicles pride and bravery against daunting odds: disease, homesickness, rough terrain (not just jungle, mountainous jungle!), even the multiple languages necessary for the polyglot unit to function (Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Burmese, Hindustani, Nepalese), all seem to doom them before the shooting even starts. The King’s Rifle is a fascinating reminder that we will never know enough about war, even when we think we know too much.
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