Friday, 9 May 2008

the beautyful ones are not yet born [w. ayi kwei armah]

There's a lot of shit in Armah's visceral novel, set in Accra. Shit in the literal sense. The issues of shit-stained shared lavatories. The smell of shit on the air. The stench of sweat and fear and hunger. This isn't an easy place to live. The never-ending contaminating heat seeps through the pages as the writer's unnamed hero goes about the business of trying to live in a society where there appears to be little reason to continue.

There is more than a hint of La Nausée in the book, the first half of which examines the minutiae of the hero's life as he goes to work, refuses to take bribes, is patronised by his wife, Oyo, for his attitude and struggles to continue when even the most basic of human functions has become an odious chore. The man's virtue is the product not of a saintly disposition but of a cussed determination not to follow the crowd, to attempt to remain an individual when everyone else is playing the game. His existentialist disposition sustains him, even when the corrupt government minister, Koomson, pays a condescending visit with his wife to the man's home, so that Oyo and her mother can buy into a loss-making scheme to own a fishing boat.

Armah peppers his book with memories of more optimistic times, when the overthrow of colonialism seemed like an opportunity to create a new society. The most damning critique of the corrupt oligarchy that take power in the name of the people is that they end up behaving like white people - they even end up speaking like white people, mouthing African names as though they were essentially inferior. The hero's memories of white rule are instructive: the novel makes it clear that the only relationship any ordinary Ghanaian would have had with the colonial rulers was one of fear and exploitation. But the book is just as scathing about the Nkrumah government, so riddled with corruption that it seems to be part of the stench that attacks the hero's nerves.

The second part of the book is set in the 48 hours or so which followed the 1966 coup that ended the Nkrumah regime. The hero's nemesis, Koomson, comes to him begging for help. In a memorable scene, the novel describes the fetid smell of fear clinging to Koomson's skin. The protagonist is almost suffocated by it, trying to think of any excuse to get himself out of the fallen politician's presence so he can breathe clean air again.

This dense, sensory examination of a national malaise makes, initially, for something of a daunting read (in much the same way as Sartre's novel takes a while to get into.) However, as the novel unfolds, the reader beings to find his or her way through the hothouse streets in the company of the stubborn man whose story is being told. Published in 1968, its individualistic message seems in keeping with a year which saw a questioning of the state and its accoutrements being articulated from Paris to Mexico City.

From media accounts of African politics in the decades since the book was written, it would appear that the man's struggle must have been repeated by countless other men and women. Somehow, for no good reason, people stubbornly go on doing what they do, fighting against a seemingly inexhaustible tide of shit. The book is careful not to present the man as heroic: he is a stubborn stoic who believes that resistance is not futile, neither will it normally be written about in the pages of history books. Resistance is just what you do, in order to prove to yourself that there's a reason to go on living.

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