The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
Lecture on: Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) for H235 African Literature, Murdoch University, 1976-7
It has become a recurrent pattern among leading African writers and intellectuals to complete their education in the U.S.A., and Ayi Kwei Armah is no exception to this trend. Born in Takoradi, Ghana in 1939, he left twenty years later for Massachusetts, where he studied for a B.A. in sociology, graduating from Harvard with Honours. 1 Having thus become a 'been-to', Armah was able to delineate in his second novel, Fragments, the climate of expectation created by the return of an expatriate West African, and the disappointment which follows if he fails to satisfy the desires of his hopeful relatives and friends. 2 Before this 1966 return, Armah had worked in Algiers as a translator for the weekly Revolution Africaine. This experience, and his understanding of the American character may have assisted in the writing of why Are We So Blest?, a novel with an interesting three-strand narrative situation about two Africans, and an American girl caught up in a revolutionary situation in Africa. 3 His most recent book, Two Thousand Seasons, is quite unlike any other of his works. 4 Narrated in the first person, but by no determinate individual, it is a saga ranging across several hundred years of African history. It concerns the struggle towards the dream of a future society; a struggle which will he spearheaded by a pure militant elite, who will have finally overcome and thrown off the legacies of the Arab and European enslavers and colonisers. Armah wrote and published Two Thousand Seasons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Before coming to live there, he had been working in Paris on the staff of Jeune Afrique, as well as returning to the U.S.A. as a visiting writer and lecturer.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born was Armah's first novel, probably written while the author was participating in the Graduate Writing Program of Columbia University, and was first published in the U.S.A. 5 Early reviewers were quite impressed, sometimes negatively. The Library Journal's reviewer judged it to be too strong for the general reader: "Sociologists may read this book for its timely reflections of conditions in Ghana, but Ayi Kwei Armah's belief that realism comes only by spelling out every crude action, by rubbing the reader's nose in every vile smell, makes it impossible to recommend the book generally for library collections." 6 Another early reviewer thought that "...quite a few readers are going to find it revolting..." 7
The Beautyful Ones is a complex work, and many approaches to it suggest themselves. Perhaps it is this complexity which has caused particular critics to attempt to simplify the novel by taking one aspect as being the dominant one and analysing the whole in its terms. Thus one critic will talk of "the dominating mood of the novel (as) one of hopeless despair" 8; another will develop the idea of a "set of correspondences between the body of man, his landscape and his society" 9 ; another says that "the pivotal image in the book seems ... that of the cave taken from Plato's Republic" 10; while yet another sees the "dominant image" as being the "image or symbol ... life as a journey, specified here as a road journey." 11 All of these are useful suggestions and worthy of examination. But first, something should be said about the historical background of the novel's setting.
Armah draws extensively on recent Ghanaian history: consider the importance to the novel of the factors of the legacy left by the War, the rise and fall of Nkrumah, and the so-called neo-colonialism following Independence. These are historical facts which are referred to and sometimes transmuted by the novelist's art into the stuff of the novel. Chapter Six is central to a consideration of this aspect and perhaps to the novel as a whole. The disillusionment which is experienced by the Teacher and his friends as a result of the false hopes created by the charismatic new leader (pp. 100-103) has a profound effect in shaping the work's central concerns. 12
It may be as well at this point to make some parenthetical remarks about the narrative situation, as it becomes rather complex at this point in the novel. For the greater part of the work, the narrative is mediated through the figure of 'the man', but in the sixth chapter it alternates between a first-person monologue and a third-person figural presentation. The identification seems somewhat ambiguous at first, perhaps in order to suggest a broader referent for the experience, but careful reading reveals that it is the Teacher's monologue addressed to the listening man, while the intercalated figural passages convey the content of the man's reactions to the Teacher's speech. Therefore it is the latter who experiences the extremes of hope and disillusion in his involvement with his friends and political life, ending in a cynical, passive despair. This reading also reveals the essential ambiguity of the identification near the end of the novel of the woman who may or may not be Maanan, in that the man has only heard about her, but never met her (p.212).
Let us now return to a consideration of some approaches to possible meanings of the work. That it is necessary to approach The Beautyful Ones with an open attitude to many kinds of meaning is partly necessitated by the complexity of Armah's language, so that the novel seems to work as much by chains of images, in the way that a poem does, as by conventional narrative means. Because of this, each individual reader will have to arrive at his/her own synthesis of the connotations of the various image systems. Take the image of the 'gleam' which occurs frequently throughout the book. 13 Is it possible to say with any precision exactly what it refers to? It is usually associated with the Atlantic Caprice and material success or bribery and corruption or all of these. And in this, it shares its area of reference with other signal images, those associated with speed and with the leap that must be made. Consider the dialectic between the speed at which such people as Koomson are able to travel, and that of the man who usually walks 'slowly' or 'steadily' or travels in 'spastic' buses, which are often stopped while the police extract bribes from the driver. Compare too the stolid acceptance implied by the man's slow speed with the inertia of the Teacher who has reached a stage of static quietism.
Included in this network of negative images is a series concerned with the bodily functions of ingestion and evacuation. The identification of these with certain social functions suggests that the latter are just as much a part of life in Ghana as the former: I refer of course to bribery and exploitation. The giving of 'kola' or gifts to someone from whom one expects to gain some advantage - a wife, for example - is a well-established part of the pattern of traditional African society. But it seems to fit in badly with the larger scale, centralist society imported by Europeans and imposed on the more diffuse society which existed before. The humbler origins of bribery are revealed by the image used metaphorically - that of 'eating'. In this novel this metaphor is extended to include the function which completes the cycle of digestion. When the politicians and their associates are enabled by manipulation to reach the heights, they use their advantage to "shit in their people's faces" as the Teacher puts it (p. 96). The completed equation then has, on the left hand side, the digestive cycle: eating, digesting and excreting; and on the other, bribery, corruption and exploitation. Whereas the digestive cycle worked well on the older, small scale, the change in the quantity of the 'eating' seems to have brought about a change in the quality of the relationships between rulers and the ruled; the new leaders, as a result of a massive growth in their wealth and influence, have allowed themselves to become increasingly alienated from the mass of the people who are abandoned to their dismal conditions. The detailed depiction of disgusting circumstances makes this point in both realistic and symbolic terms.
The negative aspects of The Beautyful Ones are patent; is there a set of positive values to which they are opposed? It is often the case in works of art, especially in satire, for example, that the moral positives of the work are not explicitly stated, but must be perceived by implication, or as the reverse of what is explicit. In The Beautyful Ones, however, there are some indications, again in the form of evocative images, of alternatives to the existing system. They are images of beauty, cleansing and rebirth.
Consider the image of the beautiful woman (pp.84-84) who seems to embody all women; compare the "huge imprint" of the flower petal on the Block (p.13) with the "single flower" on the bus, whose symbolism has already been partly established (p. 188). The little stream (p. 27), whose "cleanness ... had nothing to do with the thing it came out from", is specifically contrasted to the meretricious gleam. The principal image of cleansing is the sea, where "the air was clean and moist with salt water." It is significant that the hero plunges into the sea and is cleansed of filth and refreshed after his struggle. However, it is not to Valhalla that he goes, but back to the corrupt city, unchanged despite the coup. There is hope nevertheless: in the brief approbation of his wife (p. 194), and the final ambivalent images of the "unexplainable" flower and the unidentified bird with its "strangely happy" song.
1. Biographical details have been obtained from Zell & Silver (1972), Herdeck (1973), and Jahn (1972).
2. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
3. Armah, Why Are We So Blest? NY: Doubleday, 1972.
4. Armah, Two Thousand Seasons, Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973.
5. Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. Page references are to the Heinemann edition of 1969 (African Writers Series).
6. M.D. Herrick, Library Journal, vol. 93, (July, 1968), p.2686.
7. Charles Miller, Saturday Review, vol. 53 (August 31, 1969) p.24.
8. Eldred Jones, African Literature Today, 3 (1969), 55-57.
9. Gareth Griffiths, "The language of disillusion in the African Novel", in Anna Rutherford (ed.), Commonwealth (1971).
10. Margaret Folarin, "An additional comment on Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born", African Literature Today, 5 (1971), 116-129).
11. Kolawole Ogungbesan, "Symbol and meaning in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born", African Literature Today, 7 (1975)
12. For a synthesis of phenomena of disillusionment in other African works, see Hugh Webb, "The African historical novel and the way forward," African Literature Today, 11 (1980): pp.24-38.
13. See e.g. pp. 12, 27, 41, 45, 53, 54, 60, 65, 112, 113, 118, 180.
Herdeck, Donald E. ed. 1973, African Authors: A Companion to Black African Writing, Rockville MD: Black Orpheus.
Jahn, Janheinz 1972, A History of Neo-African Literature: Writing in Two Continents, Faber & Faber, London.
Zell, Hans M. & Silver, Helene 1972, A Reader's Guide to African Literature, Heinemann, London.
'Ayi Kwei Armah: Postcolonialism/space/postmodernism', Span, 36, May 1993: 320-329.
'Ayi Kwei Armah's viaticum for the journey into space', previously unpublished, 1992.
'Narrative situation and ideology in five novels of Ayi Kwei Armah', Span, 33, May 1992: 8-16.
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