Sunday, May 22, 2011

“The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” by Ayi Kwei Armah

Year of first publication: 1968
Genre: novel
Country: Ghana

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 novel is a man who has a thoroughly normal life: a boring but steady job in the railway service, a family of his own and a modest house. Because of his upright conduct – he cannot stand corruption and does not break the law in any way – he is despised by his colleagues and family, starting from his wife Oyo and his mother-in-law, who thinks he hasn’t got the means to support his own children. The daily routine is upset by the encounter with Koomson, a former classmate of him who has inexplicably become a Minister. Koomson wants to go into business with him, so he is invited to dinner with his wife Estelle. Oyo does everything possible to honour the guest: she wants the best food, uses the best plates and glasses in the house and, lacking the wig so fashionable among rich Ghanaians,  straightens her hair quite painfully. At this point Armah introduces some humour “to leaven the grimmer aspects” (as the Yorkshire Post writes in a blurb in the back cover): Koomson’s spoilt wife, for instance, used to imported spirits, says that beer does not get along with her constitution. The host, with a mixture of cheekiness and cynicism, asks her what kind of a constitution is it that she has. The deal reveals to be nothing really profitable, but it shows the backbone of the ruling class of the country. Grinning and bearing, politicians apparently support socialism, committing themselves to unrestrained capitalism on the sly. This is one of the many critiques that Armah makes of Ghanaian society, barely out of the colonial experience when the novel was written. 
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
It is this last image, in my opinion, the key to the interpretation of the book and the main element to dismantle the thesis that considers Ayi Kwei Armah an outright pessimistic author, bound to aesthetic and philosophical canons that are utterly western. Chinua Achebe, for instance,  wrote a caustic essay on this subject, arguing that Armah tried to wrote an existentialist novel à la Camus but made the mistake of setting it in a real place and in real time. In my opinion, while the choice of leaving the protagonist unnamed is questionable, the author could have made a further step towards realism (providing more details on Ghanaian life or on the political situation). I am not particularly fond of novels set in an "unnamed African country", because in my opinion the relevance of a literary work for the postcolonial condition as a whole (or even for the human kind) can be created in less insiduous ways, like metaphors or less insiduous characters (in this novel, "The Teacher", a philosopher of life of a sort, is one of those).
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).


  1. Thanks for splitting bare issues in the book I also thought of after reading. Armah is a chief symbolist, in my opinion. I enjoyed this book.

  2. You're welcome. I'm surprised this book hasn't been translated into Italian, by the way!

  3. Very interesting! I know very little west African writing, so really appreciate this summary.

  4. My knowledge of West African literature is also not extensive, but I hope to make up for lost time.

  5. My initial comment just got lost. I agree with you and thanks for this review. Armah was and is spot on in identifying the ills of post-colonial Ghana. And the key to understanding this book is the title. Armah himself, in an article in the New African, stated that reviewers and critics have not actually used this key to open up his novel yet. As you rightly pointed out the misspelling of the 'beautiful' has several significance. One of which is what you said: 'the rejection of European sensibilities'. This is seen in all of Armah's novels. He argues cogently that we need to develop our own African sensibilities. And I totally concur. What would a homogenised world be like? I hate to see that. And another is that 'beautyful' as used here has nothing to do with physical beauty. It has everything to do with innate uprightness; the character of a person.

    I am no student of Literature; hence, I hardly can tell the difference between existentialism and realism and all those things. My view is this: a story needs to be told the best way it could be told. Should one follow rigidly the dictates of set-up rules? I don't think so. If we were all stuck with rules, creativity would spiral into nothingness. Hence, I don't agree with Achebe's 'caustic' remarks on Armah's novel. In fact Soyinka described Two Thousand Seasons (another of Armah's novels) as woody yet I know Soyinka's own The Interpreters has been described as very woody. All these are academic and personal tangos. Armah talked about it in the said article. Besides, why should the man be named? I love stories which do not name characters. THE MAN has definite characters and this alone is enough. Armah did not say 'a man'. He knows that this man's definite characters of incorruptibility makes him unique and makes him stand out. In fact, reading The Healers and Two Thousand Seasons, Armah clearly showed the characteristics of THE MAN and what the man is not. For instance, THE MAN could be a Healer and such people hates competition but promote cooperation. They hate division and individuality. They think in the common interest of the common man. Armah's novels fit each other like a puzzle and he who wants to completely understand and appreciate them must read enough of his books. Besides, I don't mind that the country was named. Ghana was the first country south of the Sahara to gain independence. At post-colonial rule, the nation descended into corruption and he who was corrupt was rich. This post-colonial ailment affected a lot of countries. Hence a country, that prides itself to be the hope of Africa as indicated by the 'Black Star' symbol in its flag, is representative enough for the continent.

  6. @Nana: Thanks for your long and wise comment. I'll try to read more of Armah's works in the future, so I'll have another piece of the puzzle.

    A work of literature is called existentialist when it is supposed to speak about the condition of the human kind as a whole. In order to do so, authors usually don't provide much detail about the historical, economical and geographical coordinates of their works. I don't think that authors should respect set-up rules, either. A masterpiece is always one that undermines the conventions of literature or the society it is referred to. I am not fond of novels with unnamed protagonists, but this is just a personal opinion. In this case I felt that the significance of the story was clear enough, it's value for African countries and postcolonial societies for instance, even with all the characters named, which I feel is more natural.

    By the way, in my opinion, one doesn't need to be a student of literature to understand novels and poetry. You need above all sensibility and spirit of observation.