Book Number 16: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah
In an earlier post, I observed that from my (very limited) reading, African authors seemed to write either stories about people or stories about countries. The Beautyful Ones is a story about a country struggling to find its feet amidst corruption and poverty, with the tantalising gleam of the riches of the white man’s world corrupting men’s souls by promising a better life for those willing to go far enough for it.
How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders? There were men dying from the loss of hope, and others were finding gaudy ways to enjoy power they did not have. We were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs…we knew then and we know now that the only real power a black man can have will come from black people.
Armah’s novel is filled with many impassioned speeches such as the one above, decrying Africa’s poverty, her corrupt and greedy leaders who seem to lose all sense of morality at the merest whiff of power or riches, the hopelessness of life for millions of Ghanaians who have no way to break the vicious cycle of poverty and labour.
The man (who remains nameless throughout the novel) struggles to find something good about life in Ghana, but can only hold onto his own integrity for comfort. He watches his friends grow rich through cheating their fellow countrymen out of money and by sucking up to rich white men, and is berated by his wife and family for failing to provide for them and bring in the money to buy European beers and Japanese cars. He suffers as he watches his own children go without, but cannot bring himself to abandon his own morals. When the old regime is overthrown by the military, his formerly rich friends have a price slapped on their heads overnight, and the man must choose between helping his corrupt friend and saving his life, or allowing the authorities to catch him.
It’s taken me a few weeks to finally finish this novel – I found it very difficult to get into at first because it is so bleak and lacking in hope. I persisted however, and found it to be a very well-written novel, making powerful observations about life in Ghana, the African leader and the African countryman. Armah’s writing is very atmospheric and his depictions of daily life very effective. What struck me most was the passion behind Armah’s writing, shining through the grey drudge of poverty and desperation.