Steel yourself for The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah, one of the bleakest novels I’ve read in a long time, but also one of the most memorable. First published in 1968, this African modern classic explores the rise of disillusionment and corruption in post-independence Ghana, through the weary eyes of an anonymous railway clerk. His noble refusal to become a sell-out invites dismay and derision from his materialistic nearest and dearest, in this acerbic tale of ennui and moral decay.
The novel spans the final year of Francis Kwame Nkrumah’s period in office as the first President of Ghana. The early promise of a society free from colonial shackles has lamentably led to the men who had ‘risen to lead the hungry’ chasing big houses and shiny cars, and ‘trying at all points to be the dark ghost of a European.’
This is certainly the view of our unnamed hero, an everyman struggling to support his young family, and wed to a woman with very particular aspirations. We join him on the bus to work, where the tone of the novel is set by a dishonest bus conductor, musing on the joys of shortchanging his passengers while indulging in a quick sniff of a swindled banknote. The note smells of something ancient and rotten, an odour that lingers as a persistent whiff of corruption throughout the novel.
During the course of the working day, two pivotal events occur. The clerk is offered a blatant bribe from a timber contractor which he steadfastly refuses, then on his way home he bumps into an old pal, Koomson, who cheekily invites himself and his wife to dinner at the clerk’s house on Sunday.
At home, his wife, Oyo, has much to say on both these topics. She yearns for a beautiful house, a Mercedes car, the scent of expensive perfumes and the permanently straightened hair that denotes sophistication. Angry with her husband for refusing the bribe, she sees a second chance in having Koomson to dinner. From humble beginnings, Koomson has blagged his way into a position of wealth and influence. A palm-greaser and chancer, he has the ambition she believes her husband lacks. If only he’d ditch his principles and put their family first.
Armah’s novel simmers with rage at what he sees as the death of a promise for a bright Ghanaian future. Filth is his metaphor and it takes a strong stomach to read his descriptions of urban Ghanaian life, with its piles of uncollected rubbish. Rotting meat, ‘the hardening corpses of the afternoon’s flies’, the juice of every conceivable waste matter, and then the latrines. Encrusted and stinking, the latrine plays a starring role in the novel’s final chapters.
The story ends on the day after the coup that overthrew Nkrumah’s government, and reinforces Armah’s central tenet.
‘All the shouting against the white men was not hate. It was love. Twisted, but love all the same.’
A blistering read.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah is published by Heineman, 192 pages.