“The sand looked so beautiful then, so many little individual grains in the light of the night, giving the watcher the childhood feeling of infinite things finally understood, the humiliating feeling of the watcher’s nothingness.”
― Ayi Kwei Armah,
It’s been a while since a book so thoroughly depressed me. Perhaps, it’s because it hits close to home; I am half-Ghanaian.
But certainly, it is also the mood of the novel. Ayi Kwei Armah is masterful in creating this distinctive ambience with his small but meaningful choices. You’re always in for something existential when the main character has no name like in Fight Club or L’Etranger. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born was written in existentialism’s heydays the 1960s but the particularity of the main character’s experience helps it stand out from other works published at the time. It is so Ghanaian in many ways including the way the insults are spat out:
“Article of no commercial value! You think this bus belongs to your grandfather!” ― Ayi Kwei Armah,
and the visual euphemisms, to lubricate the passing days and illicit trade-offs:
“The policeman who had spoken raised his right hand and in a slow gesture pointed to his teeth. The man had seen this gesture before, several times. Usually its maker would add the words, ‘Even kola nuts can say “thanks”.’ ― Ayi Kwei Armah,
Armah’s main character (the Man) is an everyman. Middling career, middling home life, middling dreams. Like many 20th century men he fought in a war, came home and became at a loss with what to do with himself until death. Our Man is a station clerk and on the pages of the book we track his turmoil. Everyone around him is chasing, “the gleam” of money and status through loopholes and hustles found in the vacuum after the departure of the British. The Man’s foil is his friend, Koomson with similar origins but experiencing a new (read: rich) lease on life.
“These were the socialists of Africa, fat, perfumed, soft with the ancestral softness of chiefs who had sold their people and are celestially happy with the fruits of the trade,” ― Ayi Kwei Armah,
The plot is lean and focused, with one central theme, corruption. Of the soul, of the family, of the country and of the dream of liberation. Ghana was the first African country to gain independence in 1957 and this novel released in 1968 was evocative of the mood about a decade after the glow of independence. Post-Nkrumah, just one president into Ghana’s new era there were sincere doubts, horrifying hangovers from the past and widespread unease.
Where was Ghana going? Had the Ghana the people wanted even come? The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born expresses this elegantly and completely. In inimitable prose and seamless movement from crowded tro tros, empty offices, awkward homes, filthy pit latrines and vast beaches, Armah takes us through the emotional and physical landscape of botched decolonisation.
“True, I used to see a lot of hope. I saw men tear down the veils behind which the truth had been hidden. But then the same men, when they have power in their hands at last, began to find the veils useful. They made many more. Life has not changed. Only some people have been growing, becoming different, that is all. After a youth spent fighting the white man, why should not the president discover as he grows older that his real desire has been to be like the white governor himself, to live above all the blackness in the big old slave castle?”
― Ayi Kwei Armah,
At first, it is difficult to penetrate the world Armah has created, somewhat cold and scarily observant are his descriptions. But after the first 10 pages, the experience is so immersive – the reactions, the smell and thrust of the places is within you. It has stood the test of time because all the same problems back then remain today. Every good book should leave the reader changed, shaken even and The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born certainly does. I like to think “The Beautyful Ones” are just now being born, and they have our mistakes and our triumphs to learn from. Like this novel which exposes the former and but is one of the latter.