ARC 5: "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born"
This is my fifth review for the Africa Reading Challenge.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah was first published in 1968.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born takes place in Ghana in 1966 and is set against the background of the military coup which overthrew the government of president-for-life Kwame Nkrumah, covering a period from several months before the coup to a few days afterward. The plot is simple: The protagonist, a nameless individual referred to only as "the man," lives a life such as many Ghanaians lived at the time, a life sunk in poverty -- a consequence of the country's damaged economy -- with little hope for anything better. A railway traffic controller, the man barely earns enough to feed his wife and 3 children. When he turns down a bribe to help a merchant favorably schedule a shipment of timber, his wife Oyo treats him scornfully. Oyo and her mother (who is even more scornful of the man) are engaged with a government minister Koomson -- a former schoolmate of the man who has achieved his position of power and wealth through bribery -- in a plan to purchase a fishing boat which will provide them with a large income. Eventually, it becomes clear that Koomson, who as a government minister cannot openly own such businesses, simply wants to purchase the boat in Oyo's name and will himself keep the all the profits, though he grants Oyo and her mother gifts of fish from the boat. Oyo agrees, although the man disapproves; after a few such fish gifts, even these stop, and the family is as badly off as it was before. Some time later, the coup occurs, and the man returns home from work to find Koomson taking refuge in his home, begging for his help. As troops approach the home, the man helps Koomson escape by crawling out through the latrine and takes him to the boat captain's house; the boat captain agrees to take Koomson out of the country to Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire. As the man is returning home at dawn, he sees a newly-painted sign of a beautiful flower blooming with the inscription "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born," an indication of hope for a better life under the new regime on the part of the artist. The man, however, recognizes that a change of rulers is ultimately meaningless, and that his life of grinding poverty will continue as there is no possible hope that things will ever improve.
The plot may be rather simple, but the novel is stylistically complex. The author is extremely skillful in creating detailed descriptions of the physical environment in which the man exists, descriptions of decay and filth which leave no question about the state of Ghanaian society and its soul-killing poverty; particularly pervasive throughout the novel is scent, the smell of physical rot which also manifests the moral corruption to be found far too often in society. Additionally, there are frequent passages of reflection and meditation on poverty and its crushing effect on any possibility of hope. While it isn't always clear whether these reflections are those of the man, the author, or someone else, eventually it doesn't matter because they provide a clear psychological and ethical framework for viewing the setting and events of the novel.
Thematically, the novel deals with the poverty of 1960s Ghana that derives as much from the moral failure of those in power as from any outside source. The lives of most Ghanaians are ground down to virtual meaninglessness by devastating poverty those in power do nothing to alleviate while busily enriching themselves. Only the corrupt thrive in this environment; everyone else sinks down to nameless oblivion (as the narrator's lack of name suggests). And, as the ending of the novel would seem to indicate, a change of government is in the final analysis meaningless itself; the coup will only exchange one set of corrupt individuals for another. Consequently, there is no reason for hope that the future will hold anything better, and the novel ends on this note of bleak despair.
But not entirely: it may well be that the author sees some slight reason for hope; if there is, it will have to come in some way from those individuals like the man who refuse to gave way to corruption on any terms. Perhaps, just barely perhaps, there is still a chance things can be made better if there continue to be those like the man who won't give in.