This is undoubtedly one of the best books published by an Australian writer in a long time.
Future D. Fidel's Prize Fighter.
In 2015, Prize Fighter made its debut as a play at the Brisbane Festival and it was also performed at the Sydney Festival in 2017. We are fortunate that Future D. Fidel has now rewritten it as a remarkable novel.
This is not an autobiographical novel, although the plot owes much to Fidel's personal experience as he was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), lost his parents in that war-torn country and was forced to flee to Tanzania. He spent eight years in a camp before coming to Australia as a refugee where he was eventually reunited with his siblings. The superb quality and clarity of his writing demonstrates Fidel's complete mastery of the English language.
Prize Fighter is the story of Isa Alaki, who lives a happy life with his parents – older brother, Moīse, and older sister, Rita – until the age of ten. Isa lovingly describes his happy childhood in the city of Bukavu, including his special relationship with Moīse, who teaches Isa how to box. Then the DRC descends into chaos and child soldiers massacre Isa's parents and sister in front of him and force him to join their army or die. Isa manages to survive the ensuing indoctrination, and the rigours and horrors of being a child soldier armed with an AK-47. Eventually, with the help of his brother, Isa escapes to Nairobi. There he is befriended by an older woman who helps him get refugee status and in due course he arrives in Australia. He acclimatises slowly, haunted by his past and desperate to re-connect with Moīse. His boxing skills lead him to professional boxing success but he suffers severe post-traumatic stress. His demons do not leave him until he returns to the DRC to seek forgiveness.
While this is a novel is about hope for survivors and sympathy for the many who perished needlessly in the DRC, that is not its major thrust. The big question is about the ethics of survival. The reader is left to form their opinion on whether Isa should have accepted death rather than become a child soldier. The choice he made saw him become a person guilty of the same atrocities responsible for the death of his parents and sister. Without mincing words, Isa is guilty of war crimes. But Isa is such a sympathetic character and, following his escape to Nairobi, such a decent human being, that our sympathies are with him. Fidel knows better than to pose this question directly. However, the way the novel plays out it suggests that Fidel is on the side of those who would forgive – a remarkable and noteworthy attitude given his own experience.
This is undoubtedly one of the best books published by an Australian writer in a long time. It is to be hoped that Fidel's activities as a playwright and electrical engineer will not prevent him from writing his next novel soon.
4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
By Future D. Fidel
26 June 2018
IMPRINT Hachette Australia