Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Review Contest: The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Reviewed by Sabah Carrim )

There is a reason why ‘beautyful’ is spelt wrongly in the book. The reader only guesses it when he has a bird’s eye view of the story at the end. At first glance, it could represent the critical eye cast on Ghanaians who are desperately trying to emulate the white man and his values, but there is definitely more to it.

Ayi Kwei Armah born in Ghana, delves into sensitive issues like poverty and corruption, which make up the African social and economic fabric. This novel exposes a panoply of symbols and metaphors much to the delight of thinking minds. In this story, the author describes the hopelessness of the main character, ‘the man’. ‘The man’ is not named. He is not given an identity in order to convey the idea that he is nobody in society. Another interpretation is also that he represents the plight of the average man in Ghana. ‘The man’ has no money and is a mere over-exploited government worker who lives from hand to mouth. His simple life revolves around the principles of truth, honesty, integrity, uprightness. This contrasts with the dazzling life of his former classmate Koomson who is a rich and famous minister deeply admired by yes men and lickspittles like himself. Corruption is an everyday practice in his life. It is even called the ‘national game’ of the country by the author. ‘The man’ feels frustrated at the thought that Koomson is the winner and he the loser in the real world.

‘Koomson was my classmate… He was not very intelligent’. The man was pacing the room again. ‘Shit he was actually stupid.’

But then, the path of righteousness has never been an automatic guarantee for success in this materialistic world.

The man is scorned and disdained by his wife, Oyo. He is an unworthy husband who according to her because of his so-called pride and egocentrism, abstains from participating in the ‘national game’. ‘It is nice. It is clean, the life Estella is getting.’ exclaims Oyo enviously, referring to Koomson’s wife. In this superficial society people with ‘fat pockets’ are worshipped and revered at the expense of those who uphold a strong sense of morality. Here people with empty pockets do not merit any attention. ‘Article of no commercial value!’ is hurled at the man, to denigrate him.

Corruption is even justified as being a means to survival in Ghana, and to make the man understand this, his wife compares him to a ‘Chichidodo’: ‘Ah you know, the Chichidodo is a bird. The Chichidodo hates excrement with all its soul. But the Chichidodo only feeds on maggots, and you know the maggots grow best inside the lavatory. This is the Chichidodo.’ In Oyo’s opinion, the man is a hypocrite who pretends to be noble and integral by refraining from accepting bribes and yet he does not realize that his honestly earned money has its origins really in corruption.

‘My own lord, my master, oh my white man, come. Come and take my bread. It is all yours, my white man, all yours’ calls out the bread seller and the black man to whom the ‘praise’ is addressed, strides out of his car, obviously pleased and flattered by the servility displayed. But the beseeching call can be compared with a prostitute selling herself, like the black man does to the white man. The man, on the other hand, remains the ‘invisible man of the shadows’ whom the bread seller never notices.

‘The poor are rich in patience’. And so the story takes a new turn and the rewards of honesty are paid off: eventually with the change of government, Koomson loses all power and is caught red-handed. Paradoxically he seeks refuge in the man’s house. No matter how demeaning was the former minister’s attitude towards him throughout the story, the man helps him escape and ironically, through a manhole. This event is symbolic of how even the puritanical man ends up indulging in an act of corruption when he facilitates the escape.

It is on the beach, after escaping through the manhole that the man sees Maanan again, a former nun turned into a prostitute. Once more, she is another important character in the novel who evokes that destructive image of robustness turning into deterioration, freshness into decrepitude- the drastic changes one undergoes in a country where corruption is the national game. When the man returns home he sees in huge bold letters the words: ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’, probably referring to the cycle of past, present and future political leaders who will eternally obstruct the path of potential righteous leaders. Even the man was not sufficiently ‘beautyful’ to fight the corruption that taints his integrity when he helps Koomson escape.

The title of the book also reminds the reader of what is at risk of being lost when ‘(t)he soul of a man (is) waiting to be drawn’…

Another point worthy of admiration about this book is its realistic portrayal of the upright man’s fate as opposed to the corrupted one: either way, life is not pink but involves a judicious exercise of singling out the lesser of two evils. The question is whether you should choose honesty over corruption at the risk of living humbly and simply like ‘the man’ .Or should you opt for lavishness at the greater risk of losing not just that but also your freedom and independence like Koomson?

No comments: