BENEATH THE DARKENING SKY
By Majok Tulba
Hamish Hamilton, $29.95
READERS of Beneath the Darkening Sky, Majok Tulba's graphic and gruesome depiction of the enlistment of child soldiers in Sudan's civil war, will sup a book full of horrors. Tulba begins with the sacking of the village of young Obinna. Shock forces clarity of observation from the boy: ''The only things moving slowly are the soldiers.'' Their faces are shiny with sweat and ash - ''it looks like face paint for the village dances''. A boy decapitates an old man. From his temporary vantage in a tree, Obinna can only think of how ''the old man knew so many songs''.
Obinna's role as spectator is wrenched to an end. Lined up with other boys from the village, his height is macabrely measured against an AK-47 rifle. Just tall enough, he is impressed into the rebel army.
Tulba draws on his own terrible story, save that he was just short of the rifle's height. His brother was not. Their village was destroyed by forces of what would become the army of South Sudan when that country achieved a fragile independence in July last year. Both sides in the war used child soldiers. Free for the time being, Tulba joined tens of thousands of refugees in camps along the border of Uganda and Sudan.
In 2001, when he was 16, Tulba was granted refugee status in Australia. Settled in Sydney, almost unimaginably far from the land of his childhood, he is now chief executive of LifeCare Sudan, a writer and filmmaker. Beneath the Darkening Sky, his first novel, has a dedication that explains his cause: ''For the children who died in battle, the villages that were burned, the rights that were lost, the lives not lived, and the voiceless everywhere.''
''Soldiers are dreamers,'' Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote. As often as he can, Obinna (renamed Baboon's Ass as part of abusive and demeaning induction rituals) conjures the future as a doctor for which he had wished, as well as returning to memories of the ''gunless'' life he had known, with its hallowed and now forever-lost patterns of work and of ceremony.
As he says, haltingly, ''the village can just be in my head and I can visit it at any time''. Gradually, though, he is deadened by, and towards, his experiences: ''I've been a soldier for years. Countless first days.'' He has seen deaths from shooting and cholera, his brother's castration so that he can join the rebel commander's eunuch bodyguard, death from mines: ''The boy is covered in cloud. The pebbles fly so fast they gouge into his skin, then exit the other side.''
Tulba's novel is in crucial formal respects a version, or maybe a ghastly parody, of one of the most familiar kinds of war narrative: the initiation of a recruit, a litany of first things. To begin with, he joins the unit (but by violent coercion), then he meets his comrades. Some are children like him. Others are seasoned adult fighters - Parasite, Priest, Mouse and the malevolent Captain, who ''looks like he's been made in the wild, out of earth and darkness''.
Obinna has already seen his first bodies - in his own village. He undergoes training (with wooden guns, then the AK-47). Not long after his initial sexual encounter, he takes his first life. Baboon's Ass has been transformed, for the sake of the unit's morale, into People's Fire. Now he helps to inflict the terrors that had been visited upon him and his family: ''Once this village had a name. Not any more, not since we came. Now it's just chaos.''
The title of the novel comes from the wishful words of a song that the young soldier sings (and, for doing so, is tortured): ''The world will carry us home beneath the darkening sky.'' Tulba's is a blackly eloquent tale, one that seems altogether without consolation. Perhaps its most terrible element is the loss of childhood for so many, Obinna the emblem for them. The storytelling is not without awkwardness, as unfailingly sharp as its images. Tulba's materials are not easily subdued to anything ordered or - from this distance - comprehensible. Nonetheless, he has written a war novel of an originality and fidelity that has scarcely been matched in Australia.
■Majok Tulba is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival. mwf.com.au