The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a filthy book. Dirt, decay, grime and ordure are everywhere, detailed in prose of rhapsodic disgust. The streets, the rivers, the showers, the latrines: these are the symptoms of an ungovernably reeking and befouled chaos, a social and political putrefaction afflicting Ghana just before the fall of Nkrumah, the country’s first post-independence leader (the novel was published two years after his overthrow). An expensive new bin is soon almost submerged under a pile of refuse (‘banana peels and mango seeds and thoroughly sucked-out oranges and the chaff of sugarcane and most of all the thick brown wrapping from a hundred balls of kenkey’); windows acquire ‘an oily yellow shine which [hides] their underlying color’; water stagnates ‘in puddles whose scum [is] visible even in the dark’. Filth is everywhere spreading, accreting, encrusting, building up, flowing, pooling, circulating, engulfing. There’s a terrific passage about a stair banister with an ‘uncomfortably organic’ touch to it:
A weak bulb hung over the whole staircase suspended on some thin, invisible thread. By its light it was barely possible to see the banister, and the sight was like that of a very long piece of diseased skin. The banister had originally been a wooden one, and to this time it was still possible to see, in the deepest of the cracks between the swellings of other matter, a dubious piece of deeply aged brown wood. And there were many cracks, though most of them did not reach all the way down to the wood underneath. They were no longer sharp, the cracks, but all rounded out and smoothed, consumed by some soft, gentle process of decay. In places the wood only seemed to have been painted over, but that must have been long ago indeed. For a long time only polish, different kinds of wood and floor polish, had been used. It would be impossible to calculate how much polish on how many rags the wood on the stair banister had seen, but there was certainly enough Ronuk and Mansion splashed there to give the place its now indelible reek of putrid turpentine. What had been going on there and was going on now and would go on and on through all the years ahead was a species of war carried on in the silence of long ages, a struggle in which only the keen, uncanny eyes and ears of lunatic seers could detect the deceiving, easy breathing of the strugglers.
The struggle is doomed to failure.
But of course in the end it was the rot which imprisoned everything in its effortless embrace. It did not really have to fight. Being was enough. In the natural course of things it would always take the newness of the different kinds of polish and the vaunted cleansing of the chemicals in them, and it would convert all to victorious filth, awaiting yet more polish again and again and again.
Contrasted with all this dirt, and yet at the same time bound up with it, are ideas and images of cleanliness, order, brightness and purity. One of the novel’s governing images is the Atlantic-Caprice Hotel, a big, gleaming white monstrosity that towers over the surrounding buildings, its gleam at once seductive and repellent. It is heavily symbolic, of course: the allure of money, of power, status, luxury. It proclaims the dominant position of the country’s post-independence elite, which pathetically apes the tastes, lifestyles, even names, of its former colonial masters. Throughout the book, the dazzling, the shiny, the spotless, the white, are associated with the corrupt values and practices of this elite, which is but an extension of the (white-skinned) ancien régime. An old man remembers, in the days of British rule, ‘the white mean’s gleaming bungalows’, which have since become occupied by their black successors, who also now drive gleaming cars with blinding white lights. The home of one of these big men is filled with glinting objects: ashtrays, pistol-shaped lighters, silver boxes, marble table tops, polished dishes and glasses, and so on. Even his dressing gown is shiny. As much as this elite strives to distance itself from the unclean masses it rules over, however, it cannot extricate itself entirely, for there will always be an unpleasant but unavoidable and even necessary proximity; the boundaries are moreover not secure. Armah provides a fittingly scatological image of this in a government office’s latrine wall, the upper part of which is a ‘dazzling white’, with no obscuring cobwebs, while the lower part is streaked with shit; the white area looks set to diminish over time, as people have resorted to jumping up in order to make use of a clean spot. The expensive new bin, now all but hidden under the rubbish, is topped by a sign which once was bright, ‘gleaming’ and ‘lucent’, but which is now stained and unreadable. It is a kind of a revenge against the elite, for the elite enriches itself by stealing money supposedly meant for the poor; the masses and the dirt in which they dwell are thus the substrate upon which the existence of the elite depends. But while the substrate may threaten to overwhelm that which it sustains, there are new elites waiting to take the place of the vanquished one.
The book opposes and conjoins clean and dirty with an almost suffocating intensity, so that after finishing it, I felt as if I was coming up for air. Such an obsessive focus packs a real punch, but the author falters in his failure to create a convincing protagonist. Armah gives us a hero or anti-hero in the character of a nameless railway controller, referred throughout the book as ‘the man’. If his anonymity is meant to suggest an everyman, then he’s a very strange kind of everyman. For one thing, he is profoundly alienated from his society, which is shown to be shallow, venal, conformist, amoral and rotten; his poorly paid job offers opportunities to advance himself through dishonest means, but he refuses them all, earning the contempt of his fellows and the resentment of his wife and mother-in-law. A real everyman would not, in such circumstances, refrain from giving or taking a bribe or two, or at least be seriously tempted; here, the man certainly desires material comforts, mainly for the sake of his family, but his uncompromising rectitude is never in doubt. Such scrupulousness marks him as an exceptional figure, yet his character is vague, unknowable; not only is he denied a name, but physical and psychological detail are also largely withheld. Armah is good on the feelings of guilt, frustration and estrangement that beset the man as a result of his principled stand, which condemns his family to remain in soul-sapping poverty, but these feelings never seem the products of an individual psychology. Detailed psychological realism is not a requirement of a novel, of course, and plenty do very well without it, but the trouble here is that the protagonist does little more than drift through the story feeling sorry for himself; he can’t even explain or justify his scruples. Fair enough as a condemnation of ineffective intellectuals who mope and grouch in the face of oppression and exploitation but cannot rouse themselves to act, or even to think about their situation with any clarity, but Armah stacks things so heavily against the man, and sees so little hope for meaningful change, that he makes personal virtue co-existing with despairing resignation seem like a pretty reasonable choice. The few other characters who shun the pervasive corruption are either dead or have cut themselves off from society, and are thus even less likely to help bring about social change. The man’s ethical stance, poorly though he understands it, is shown to be so unusual that it assumes a stature that undermines any criticism of his inaction. He is a figure full of contradictions―at once universal, extraordinary, unremarkable, heroic, passive and amorphous―but, unfortunately, Armah doesn’t know what to do with all these contradictions, and so they do not sustain much interest.
Far more compelling is the man’s wife, who is not only given a name―Oyo―but is also a more vivid, complex character, her outlines sharp while those of her husband are fuzzy. Being a wife and mother fully occupied with her domestic role, she is not faced directly, as her husband is, with having to choose between a state of honest privation and advancement through corruption; she can only live with the consequences of her husband’s attitude. The women in this book are excluded from the kinds of job that offer the possibility of advancement, and so dirty money only comes to their hands via their husbands, if it comes at all. Oyo and her mother are excited about a business opportunity, but their scheme is dependent on the assistance of a powerful man. Oyo’s resentment comes from bearing the brunt of her husband’s principles; it is she who, as a result of these principles, must run the household and bring up the children with next to no money. For her, there is no escape from the misery of home, as there is for him; there is no retreating to an office sanctuary. I suspect Armah might have done better to have made Oyo the central character. It is she who provides another of the book’s key images (along with the gleaming Atlantic-Caprice Hotel), when she mordantly compares her husband to the chichidodo, a fictional bird that hates excrement but eats only maggots, which are most plentiful in lavatories.
So then, back to shit, from which might emerge something as odious as a maggot, or as beautiful as a flower. The protagonist’s mentor, whom he addresses as Teacher, remarks that ‘out of the decay and the dung there is always a new flowering,’ yet he is a character wholly given over to pessimism and inaction. For him, hopeful thoughts are little more than bromides, which might ‘soothe the brain’, but cannot assuage ‘the ache and the sinking fear’ lodged in the heart and guts. For him, the maggots far outnumber the flowers. Of Nkrumah’s own decline from idealistic young anti-colonial activist to corrupt leader cut off from the struggles of his countrymen, the teacher asks how something could ‘have grown rotten with such obscene haste?’ Obscene, yes, but also quite natural and ordinary: the allure of shiny things, which ‘pull the tired body toward rest and decay.’ Here we have the source of all filth: the symbiotic, all-contaminating relationship between what is decaying, dirty, degraded and what is gleaming, hygienic, pure―a relationship of money and faeces endlessly generating more filth. The more people strive for the gleam of the Atlantic-Caprice, the more shit gets produced. A brilliant image: the stench of the public lavatory and the taste of rot forcing people to spit, a ‘doomed attempt to purify the self by adding to the disease outside.’ The cycle of birth, consumption, excretion, growth, decay, decomposition and rebirth serves as a cosmic backdrop to the story, a cycle from which there is no apparent escape. The only hope lies in a new kind of rebirth, freed from the influence of capitalism and the colonial legacy, but it seems a distant, desperate hope; the book’s very title defers its realization to an unspecified future. The ending, which involves a literal journey through shit and cleansing in the ocean, might point to the possibility of this rebirth, but the remoteness of this possibility weighs over the whole of this powerful, depressing book.