In the first charter of “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” the author describes the wooden banister of the staircase leading to the office where the unnamed main character of the book works. The wood is very old, with deep cracks, and for as much polish as you can use, it is not in good shape. In the ageing process of the banister rot and decay will always win:
The wood underneath would win and win till the end of time. Of that there was no doubt possible, only the pain of hope perennially doomed to disappointment. It was so clear. Of course it was in the nature of the wood to rot with age. The polish, it was supposed, would catch the rot. But of course in the end it was the rot which imprisoned everything in its effortless embrace. (p.12)
Ayi Kwei Armah uses the word “rot” and it is not by chance that “corruption” is a synonym of “rot”. The thick, one-page-and-a-half-long description of the banister, also filthy from the contact with hands dirty with excrement and leftovers of food, is also a metaphor for the society described by the author, already ruined and doomed to the worst, essentially unable to heal after a colonial past that has left corruption and political patronage as the only signpost of the country. “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born”, which is the first novel of the most important Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, describes a society where in order to obtain something in life – a fancy car, a beautiful house, the best brands of imported spirits – one needs to accept bribes, to worship the occasional politician to get a position of prestige or to break the law and get, together with power, the money necessary to have the trust of one’s friends and family.
|Ayi Kwei Armah|
The protagonist of the story, however, is a symbol for the future redeemers of the country: he represents the common African man (or Ghanaian man), honest and hard-working, so much that he lacks a name. Because this book is packed with symbols and metaphors, I would like to draw attention to the chichidodo, a bird to which Oyo compares her husband. The chichidodo bird, “hates excrement with all its soul. But the chichidodo only feeds on maggots, and you know the maggots grow inside the lavatory” (p.45). The man, like the chichidodo, appreciates Koomson’s money and power, but not how he got it. He hates to get his hands dirty, in other words. This hideous element, the excrements, will pay a crucial role in finding a way out, quite literally, from a situation that has gone out of hand. The tale will end with the image of a single flower, metaphorically growing from dung, and the writing “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born”, both painted by the driver himself. This image stands for the hope of a few honest people growing out of the horrible situation of the country. The mistake in the spelling of “beautyful” perhaps implies that Africa, or Ghana at least, has rejected European canons (of correctness and beauty, for instance) and is able (or will be able) to create something outside of western philosophy and politics, in a thoroughly original way.
|Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe|
Overall, Ayi Kwei Armah wrote a powerful, well-structured novel which is rightfully rated among the classics of African literature. He couples chapters where the story is gripping with more reflective, almost philosophical chapters, where the story struggles a little, but then the tale recovers, stronger and bursting with life. Less than 200-pages long, Ayi Kwei Armah is not ashamed of telling what is not working in his country. Next to a grim, overwhelming atmosphere ruled by a feeling of defeat, loss and pessimism that could be found in a novel by Naipaul or in “Heart of Darkness (just to make two obvious examples), Armah places an energetic prose style, an out-of-the-common sense of humour and a sprout of hope at the end of the book.
About the author: Ayi Kwei Armah was born in Takoradi, Ghana, in 1939. He was educated in both Ghana and America. He worked as a translator in Algiers and as a scriptwriter for Ghana television, then as an English teacher and as a translator-editor for Jeune Afrique in France. He is concerned with the creation of a Pan-african agency that will embrace the diverse cultures and languages of the continent (in this sense he has encouraged the development of Kiswahili as a continental language). He has written several novel, among them "Two Thousand Seasons" (1973) and "The Healers" (1979).