The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (African Writers Series)
Ayi Kwei Armah
$ 12.33 (new)
$ 8.74 (used)
Paperback (192 pages)
Editorial DescriptionThe central story in this book tells of an upright man resisting the temptations of easy bribes and easy satisfactions and winning for his honesty nothing but scorn.
Beautiful Ones was required reading at secondary school. I didn't quite understand it, all the same it left an impression, and early this year i sought it out. It is an amazing book. Two weeks of careful reading, my copy is left heavily lined and dog-eared.
I strongly recommend it to all budding social revolutionaries.
It is one lone man's struggle against seemingly inescapable corruption and filth. A "settled mind"/resolved principles triumphs in the face of hunger, severe poverty, a nagging wife and his own conscience.
His stance is eventually justified when the corrupt government along with his much envied politician friend falls.
There is a lot of filth- environment, human nature, even language. Nothing is spared. Its easy to get caught up in its general ugliness. This is ironically the beauty of the book and does not rob it of its essence. For those who have not been exposed to widespread corruption, rotteness or had to struggle with "doing the right thing" and against all the odds, it may seem a "sick book".
Style Not Exactly Beautiful, but Ultimately a Strong Description of the Powerless
Published in 1968, this was Armah's first novel. It depicted corruption and societal breakdown in a newly independent African nation, seen through the eyes of a citizen disillusioned by the materialism and decay he encountered, who found himself struggling to maintain his integrity.
The book was based on the experience of Ghanaians in the late 1950s and 1960s under the administration of Kwame Nkrumah. The nation's first leader after independence, he mismanaged the economy and was overthrown two years before the novel's publication. The work's considered to be among the key novels that began to reflect criticism of newly established native African governments following the exhilaration of freedom from colonial rule.
Regrettably, I found the first two-thirds of the book to be plodding and often obscure, and the action uninteresting. It took 60 pages, one-third of the novel, to get the main character from a bus to an office to his home, through conversations with a bus driver, a relative, his wife and a teacher. Initially, there was little description of the characters' thoughts other than through dialogue. New characters were introduced abruptly, with little clue as to who they were; for example, the woman named Manaan in Chapter 6. Sixty pages into the book, a nameless, first-person narrator began speaking for half a chapter before dropping out.
Too many of these passages went something like this:
"Question bounces off unheeded as the naked man gets up off the bed, takes a pencil from the top of the bookcase near the bed and sticks it in to mark the page. He puts the book on the case and sits back down on the bed, pushing his back against the head and drawing up his knees."
And 40 pages later, this:
"The naked man stood up on the bed and tried to reach over to the door and take down a pair of trousers hanging on a nail behind it, but at his touch the door swung left and away from him, and he had to jump down and go round to get the trousers. He slipped them on over his naked body and took down a T-shirt from another nail."
Many of these passages called to mind the style of the French New Novelists: painstaking description of moment-by-moment action to create a certain atmosphere, combined with a deemphasis of character, background and plot. Maybe this style was considered suitable for conveying the atmosphere of powerlessness. Disliking the style, I found it tedious and hard to appreciate.
Closer toward the book's end, more of the main character's thoughts began to be gradually introduced. The last third of the novel, describing an important dinner at the main character's home with a corrupt representative of the regime and the fateful aftermath, was written in a more realistic way and told a more dramatic story, where plot and character came more sharply into focus. The ending seemed appropriate and was far from optimistic.
For me, the novel was most memorable for its descriptions of the indignities of the new country: enslaving admiration for those with material wealth, no matter how it was gained; the humiliation and envy of those who lacked it; a dead-end job and the virtual absence of hope or an opportunity to better oneself; corruption and the pressure to join in and trade integrity for scraps, for the sake of one's children. And the ultimate futility of it all, what the author called the "horrible cycle of the powerless."
The novel was also memorable for its variety of pungent images of filth, which served to communicate both the urban atmosphere and moral decay:
"Sounds arise and kill all smells as the bus pulls into the dormitory town. Past the big public lavatory the stench claws inward to the throat. Sometimes it is understandable that people spit so much, when all around decaying things push inward and mix all the body's juices with the taste of rot . . . . Hot smell of caked s--- split by afternoon's baking sun, now touched by still evaporating dew. The nostrils, incredibly, are joined in a way that is most horrifying direct to the throat itself and to the entrails right through to their end."
Although I found much of the book's style uninteresting until the last third, by the end the writer had managed to convey a strong sense of what life was like, physically and psychologically, under a corrupt regime.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
I have just completed this book and can only say that i would not have read it had i not been required to. It is the story of a poor man in a material world who, despite the pressures around and within him, is able to maintain a sense of dignity within himself. The author manages to create vivd scenes of filth and vileness throughout the novel but the plot leaves something to be desired. Characters are vague and action begins very late in the text. Despite valiant attempts to create a classic, this book still belongs in the attic with all the other dusty volumes. The only people i would recommend this to would be those who love descriptions and those who act too perky.
Don't read this while eating lunch
This is an utterly disgusting book, with major gratuitous bodily fluid scenes in almost every chapter. As I get grossed out easily, it was tough getting through this.
But Armah's extraordinary ability to paint imagery is undeniable, and though you may get images stuck in your head that you didn't exactly want there, this book effectively portrays a culture of corruption and despair in the last months of Kwame Nkrumah's presidency before the coup.
The draw to the story is following the protagonist's noble battle, facing the unenviable dilemma of choosing between the love of those closest to him and preservation of his integrity in a society where corruption and accepting bribes is the norm.
The stuff that nobel literature prizes are made of.
Not any one of Soyinka's or Achebe's books can hold a candle to this particular work by Ayi Kwei Armah. I studied this book for a critical appreciation of Literature course at University in the '80s and until this moment the grating images of corruption and a derelict society that breeds corruption upon itself still erupts vividly in my head. Ayi Kwei Armah succinctly and subtly depicts corruption through his writing with bold imagery and flawless writing.
You would pick this book up to read three decades after it was written, and it would still seem like a novel that just came out; it still rings true to this day in many corrupt societies and it is a book that should be up there with the greatest literary giants of our time.
T.J. Nanna, Author: Mind Untamed: Collected Poems