Monday, January 17, 2011

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born - Ayi Kwei Armah's brilliantly disgusting novel

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:

             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. (edit, years later: late, lamented, dead link).


  1. Thanks for the rep. That book is one of my all time favourites. It really portrays the issues of the time without hiding behind political and literary innuendos. The filth and rot like you rightly stated wasn't only metaphorical for the corruption breeding in the offices and within government. If people entrusted in cleaning the city are eagerly stealing the nation's wealth what would the effect be?

  2. My pleasure - you led me to the book. I had heard of it before, but had not understood its quality. The symbolic structure Armah builds, out of such unpromising material, is so rich, and moves from local politics to universal relevance.

  3. Did this book for A-levels. This book along with "Songs of Innocence & Experience" are the two texts I credit with awakening my political consciousness. I should really get around to Armah's other works.

    I have always been curious about certain groups unqualified veneration of Nkrumah because of this text but I suppose it was just a novel...

  4. Nana has written about some of Armah's other books. Well worth a look.

    Yeah, there are limits to what a novel can do! One fascinating little piece of my trip to Senegal was hearing people talk about Senghor, who they respected in the roles of poet and Founding Father, but also treated much less respectfully when it came to his career as a politician. Seemed, to me, quite healthy.

  5. I agree that this a profound and beautiful book, and you rightly pick up on Armah's skill for symbolism. This is one of the finest African novels for sure. Armah's later work never quite recaptures the magic of this book imho.

  6. Sean, thank you for the comment. Armah wrote an exciting book that I hope many people read someday.

  7. I found this book recently at a bookshop in Seoul. It rang a bell, but it was only when I got home and checked Wuthering Expectations that I'd seen the author's name at the side of your side. It's a very good novel; I just posted my own review of it here.

  8. Maybe Armah will win the Nobel in a few days and you'll look prescient.