The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, the 1968 novel by Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah, may be the most disgusting book I have ever read. The book is crammed with garbage and waste. The stream of filth and human effluence is unending. Foul odors and sights are fundamental not just to the symbolic structure of the novel, but to the actual plot. I cannot seem to escape metaphorical language that reinforces the ‘orrible things that can be found in this profound and brilliant novel.
My favorite, not particularly disgusting, example, is from early in the book, in Chapter 1. The Ghanaian government, in an anti-trash campaign, has installed trash cans and run advertisements urging people to use them. “Like others before it, this campaign had been extremely impressive, and admiring rumors indicated that it had cost a great lot of money.” The citizens happily make use of the new trash cans. They use them, and use them some more. Soon, the city is dotted with huge mounds of trash, each with a brand new trash can at its heart. And people continue to use them.
I hope that one does not have to be from West Africa to find this story of the worst laid plans hilarious. The number of little ironies just in this one little episode astound me.
The story is about one man’s efforts to resist corruption, to stay clean. The filth of the city, his apartment, and his own body are the physical manifestations of his country’s corruption. Armah writes in the tradition of Swift and Rabelais. We are all producers of filth. We are all disgusting. To Swift, this is an argument against mankind. To Rabelais, it is part of the case for the defense, that we are, among other things, mechanisms for eating, drinking, and excreting. Rabelais, a physician, finds this all quite jolly.
The symbolic connections Armah draws between personal and political corruption creates a paradox. Consumption and waste are part of our existence as humans. Perhaps the political corruption is also inherent. Armah’s hero simply continues his internal struggle.
At the end of the novel, he is given a glimpse of an alternative, perhaps, in the title of the novel, which is painted on the back of a green bus – now there’s a deliberately symbolic choice of color:
Behind it, the green paint was brightened with an inscription carefully lettered to form an oval shape:
THE BEAUTYFUL ONES
ARE NOT YET BORN
In the center of the oval was a single flower, solitary, unexplainable, and very beautiful.
How I would love to visit Ghana.
Further reading: Evening All Afternoon wallows in literary disgust.
Ghanaian poet, economist and book blogger Nana Fredua-Agyeman provides a more review-like review of the novel. Skip whatever I wrote, and read him instead. Also, be sure to seek out his All Time Favorite Books by Africans, off on the right somewhere. The Beautyful Ones is there, yes.
Kirjasto or Authors Calendar or whatever that site is called has a nice overview of Armah’s life and works.