Review of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (Heinemann, 1968).
This bleak Ghanaian classic evokes one man’s resistance to the rot.
Some novels conjure images, others sounds. Proust famously unfurled the past on the taste of a madeleine. Ayi Kwei Armah, In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, stirs his potion with smells – and not of the fragrant sort. He describes a city of sea salt and sweat, reeking of ‘the dead smell of carbide lamps’, ‘the rich stench of menstrual blood’, ‘the vapour of a well-used wig’. Vomit slimes the streets; on the train tracks, ‘the overwarm stench of despair’ rises from ‘the mixture of fallen ashes and stray lumps of engine coal and steamed grease’. Armah seeks poetry in the putrescence, as in his oddly lyrical description of the ‘hot smell of caked shit split by afternoon’s baking sun, now touched by still evaporating dew’.
In its fastidiousness, its horror at the Third World city, this could almost be a priggish colonial travelogue. But that is far from Armah’s purpose. The stench that seeps from these pages is pungent pathetic fallacy, the smell of a society stewing in corruption and decay. Writing in 1968, just a decade after Ghana’s independence, Armah already despairs for promises betrayed. When he takes two pages to detail a filthy banister, the rot ‘imprison[ing] everything in its effortless embrace’, it is not just the woodwork he is talking about. The question, as one of his characters later wonders, is: ‘How could this have grown rotten with such obscene haste?’
The central hero is unnamed. Referred to only as ‘the man’, he wanders in a daze through a desiccated moral landscape, clutching quixotically to his principles against the scorn of colleagues, family, friends. His anonymity gives the air of a moral fable; his fierce, lonely conviction is reminiscent of nothing more than one of those Hollywood films of the fifties – High Noon or Twelve Angry Men in the Gulf of Guinea. He is less a character than an emblem: of the values the country has lost and, from a more universal viewpoint, of the proud refusal of the individual conscience.
The eviscerating force in this city is the lure of shininess, cleanliness, wealth, or – as Armah has it more intangibly – the lure of ‘the gleam’. Armah shows us greed, but his critique encompasses more than mere acquisitiveness. Corruption thrives as much through love, through duty. The man’s wife disdains his integrity, which has left them poor. ‘Is there anything wrong with some entertainment now and then?’ she asks accusingly. When the man refuses to take a bribe from a timber merchant it is he who feels ‘dishonest’; elsewhere, he reflects on the ‘ambiguous disturbing tumult’ that the gleam awakens in him. In a corrupt society, to be honest is to fail, not just for oneself, but for loved ones. And ‘in the end, was there anything done for the children’s sake which could really be seen as a crime?’
It was not meant to be that way. Armah powerfully evokes the dreams of independence, embodied above all by Kwame Nkrumah, an icon of continental stature. By the time Armah was writing Nkrumah had already been deposed after establishing a de facto dictatorship. The hubristic arc is now familiar, but that early disillusionment was a shock to African intellectuals of Armah’s generation. In tones that foreshadow much subsequent African writing, Armah castigates the revolutionaries who now wear the garb of the colonizers. ‘This is what it had come to,’ he writes, ‘not that the whole thing might be overturned and ended, but that a few black men might be pushed closer to their masters, to eat some of the fat into their bellies too.’
The burden of politics weighs heavily on this novel. Armah, like his contemporaries on the continent, is simultaneously forging a national literature and addressing the state of a young nation. He can be forgiven, then, for the sometimes obvious moralizing, for not letting his story evolve in its own right without the obligation of meaning something. The bleak, suffocating style lends malodorous force to his narrative, though may not be to everyone’s taste.
Has a finer novel of corruption been written? The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born offers a far richer opening on this world of compromise and kickbacks than the vapid pieties of the World Bank and its armies of consultants. Yet it survives as more than an insightful polemic. Armah has created a tortured, absurdist parable that recalls Camus in its protagonist’s solitary tussle with existence. It is not the stench of the city that lingers, but the pervading hopelessness. A coup against Nkrumah will not change the country, for all the turmoil it brings to individuals. If cool analysis would find the pessimism overstated, the literary effect is overpowering:
There was so much that was heart-filling about the friendships and the hopes of the first days. So it should be easy to take the rot of the promise. It should be easy now to see there have never been people to save anybody but themselves, never in the past, never now, and there will never be any saviours if each will not save himself. No saviours. Only the hungry and the fed. Deceivers all.