The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

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The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
Author Ayi Kwei Armah
Country Ghana
Language English
Publisher Houghton Mifflin
Publication date
1968

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is the debut novel by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah. It was published in 1968 by Houghton Mifflin, and then republished in the influential Heinemann African Writers Series in 1969. The novel tells the story of a nameless man who struggles to reconcile himself with the reality of post-independence Ghana.

Plot[edit]

The unnamed protagonist, referred to as "the man", works at a railway station and is approached with a bribe; when he refuses, his wife is furious and he can't help feeling guilty despite his innocence. The novel expresses the frustration many citizens of the newly independent states in Africa felt after attaining political independence. Many African states like Ghana followed similar paths in which corruption and the greed of African elites became rampant. Corruption in turn filtered down to the rest of society. The action takes place between 1965's Passion Week and 25 February 1966 – the day after the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. The "rot" that characterized post-independent Ghana in the last years of Nkrumah is a dominant theme in the book.

Characters[edit]

  • The Man
  • Oyo
  • Teacher
  • Joseph Koomson
  • Estella Koomson
  • Sister Maanan

Themes[edit]

The novel provides a description of the existential angst of the book's hero who struggles to remain clean when everyone else around him has succumbed to "rot". The theme spins around the grand corruption, military dictatorship, country's maladjustment under the reign of Nkrumah and the military junta. Even the title The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born gives a glimpse to the theme of the book. There are also clashes between lower-class people, like the man and his family, and upper-class people like Joseph Koonson and other government officials.

Critical reception[edit]

First published in 1968 by Houghton Mifflin in the US (where the author studied at Columbia University, 1968–70),[1] The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born received critical acclaim, with "generally favorable, and often glowing, reviews", as Jacob Littleton put it: "With this one book, Armah established himself as a writer with a worldwide reputation."[2] Kirkus Reviews stated: "In the groping stretch between colonialism and a strong national identity one of the natural attitudes is a sour malaise. This young Ghanian [sic] author has caught the vanishing ends of two worlds in a bitter, acerbic novel of one man's spiritual trials in a new West African nation. ... A strong, tight, efficient novel--urgent and relevant."[3] While occasionally some "judged it to be too strong for the general reader",[4] among other reviewers, one wrote: "This is a brash and powerfully colorful novel, and if it amounts to doing the laundry in public, we can only say What a laundry! and What an heroic job at the scrub board!"[5]

However, some African writers were less welcoming of the novel, with Chinua Achebe in particular concluding: "Armah is clearly an alienated writer complete with all the symptoms. Unfortunately Ghana is not a modern existentialist country. It is just a Western African state struggling to become a nation.[6]

Ayi Kwei Armah himself notes, in a preface to a new edition of the novel published by Per Ankh:[7]

"It attracted considerable attention then, much of it focused on the author's perceived artistry. There was a tendency, from the beginning, to contrast this supposed authorial virtuosity with the novel's subject matter, rather inaccurately summed up as the pervasive negativity of the human condition in Africa. This bias didn't surprise me, and I assumed it would take little time for some careful scholar to balance it by zooming in on the conceptual content of the title, which I think expresses the meaning of the text as accurately as any title can. It is a matter of some bafflement to me, therefore, that to date, as far as I know, no critical assessment has actually gone to that thematic core: the provenance of the concept and image of the beautyful ones. The phrase 'The Beautiful One' is ancient, at least five thousand years old. To professional Egyptologists, it is a praise name for a central figure in Ancient Egyptian culture, the dismembered and remembered Osiris, a sorrowful reminder of our human vulnerability to division, fragmentation and degeneration, and at the same time a symbol of our equally human capacity for unity, cooperative action, and creative regeneration. ...

I remember no special attachment to the mythic figure in those days, but by the time I wrote the novel my impressions of Osiris, though still relatively disorganised, had evolved to the point where I was ready to recognise the image as a powerful artistic icon. Here, in mythic form, was the essence of active, innovative human intelligence acting as a prime motive force for social management. I have yet to come across an earlier, or more attractive, image for the urge to positive social change."[8]

Cultural references[edit]

Branford Marsalis recorded a 1991 jazz album of the same title.[9]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Armah, Ayi Kwei, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1968 (ASIN: B000JV2N50).
  2. ^ Littleton, Jacob, "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born", World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historic Events That Influenced Them. Encyclopedia.com.
  3. ^ "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born" (review), Kirkus, 13 June 1968.
  4. ^ Gillard, Garry, "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born". Lecture for H235 African Literature, Murdoch University, 1976-77.
  5. ^ Davenport, Guy, "Old Tunes and a Big New Beat", National Review, 5 November 1968, p. 1121.
  6. ^ Achebe, Chinua. "Africa and Her Writers", in Morning Yet on Creation Day, New York: Anchor Press, 1975, p. 40.
  7. ^ "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah" at Per Ankh Books.
  8. ^ "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born", quoted in New African, August-September 2009.
  9. ^ "Album of the Week: Branford Marsalis: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born", Ars Sacra, March 2011.

External links[edit]