The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.
THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE Not Yet Born was first published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, in 1968. 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.
When I first encountered the image of Osiris I was a schoolboy addicted to reading, and fascinated with myths of all kinds. Wags have sometimes accused the boarding school I went to, Achimota, of being a crypto-Masonic institution. The rumour is doubtless silly, but it is true that the colonial world had its share of oddfellows, templars, doo-dah cultists and freemasons, a few of whom bequeathed parts of their ex libris collections to the well-stocked school library.
My reading then was restless and wide-ranging, and my first encounters with Ancient Egypt took the form of some rather dull lessons based on a hoary classroom text by Breasted, which I followed up with livelier reading in the library.
Most of the texts tended to cast information about Ancient Egypt in a religious light, and my first impressions of Osiris left me with vague notions of a primitive religious leader, a spirit roaming the cosmos, on a self-chosen mission of social construction without brutality, a creator of new societies who went out into the world leading no armies, carrying no weapons, his sole instrument his trust in the capacity of human beings to reorganise their lives intelligently, justly and harmoniously.
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.
Among its attractions is the fact that it is a radically original African concept, utterly unlike better-known images of social change that tend to see the process, sometimes reluctantly but more often with bloodthirsty enthusiasm, as the outcome of unavoidable violence.
Though I was casually familiar with the words "The Beautiful One"' from my earlier reading, they were far from my mind at the time I was writing the book. What lay uppermost in my consciousness was the theme of great political hopes ending in equally great social disappointment.
I had, after all, lived close to some of the key events leading from the rise of the popular anti-colonialist movement led by the great pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, to the same movement's degeneration into a bureaucratic feeding frenzy for activists turned arrivistes.
"The Beautiful One" was a title given in ancient times to Osiris. In hieroglyphic transliteration, the title reads: Wn Nefer. "The Beautiful One", conventionally spelled, is a normal translation, but strictly speaking, it is inadequate, and potentially misleading. The word nefer, in the Ancient Egyptian language, is about beauty all right, but a beauty more profound than the merely physical. It does mean physical grace and elegance, but beyond that it also invokes intellectual grace--reason, as well as moral grace--integrity. The single Ancient Egyptian word nefer thus places three different aspects of beauty, the intellectual, the moral and the physical, in dynamic balance.
That balance was, in the philosophical culture of Ancient Egypt, the guiding principle of all those interested in leading their lives in such a way that when they died, it could be claimed on their behalf that they had worked to make the world a better place, and could go on, as companions of Osiris, to become in various ways beautiful ones themselves.
In a sense, then, though the concept of "The Beautiful One" began life as the singular epithet of an extraordinary being, in the course of centuries, through the workings of popular identification with an admired spirit, it came to be adopted as the appellation of like-minded groups of relatively ordinary human beings interested in the improvement of social life.
It is just such persons--individuals who live entirely ordinary lives, but whose integrity makes them wish they could live in a society functioning along honest, just lines--that this novel puts at its centre. The railwayman who gives the book its core character, his friend the teacher, and Maanan, the woman who falls in love with the charismatic political leader, only to watch him disappear into the entrails of the colonial labyrinth of injustice: there is nothing remotely extraordinary about these characters. Like most Africans they live poor, and try to do a good job if they have one. The unnamed railwayman, for instance, holds down a responsible but poorly paid job, ensuring that goods and passenger trains do not collide. He has opportunities to get rich fast, but since the shortcuts on offer involve crooked options, he resists them, letting the accelerating flow of scarce cash pass him by.
He knows others, too, like Maanan, who would like to see their society change for the better, away from the injustices of European colonialism, towards an African future opening up to possibilities of greater justice. The conundrum they face is that around them, lots of people are following sleepwalking leaders in exactly the opposite direction: back into the inanities of colonial injustice.
European colonial practices
Let me here quote from the autobiography of the charismatic political leader Kwame Nkrumah, because his words put into a nutshell the social situation that gave my novel its theme. Writing in the years leading up to Ghana's independence, Nkrumah admitted he was aware of the threat of the politically demobilising potential of the African leadership's option to model their rule on European colonial practices:
"I was not blind to the possibility of bribery and corruption in the country among both Europeans and Africans. Things had moved fast, the feeling of power was a new thing; the desire to possess cars, houses and other commodities that were regarded as necessities by the European population in the country, was not unnatural in people who were suddenly made to feel that they were being prepared to take over from those Europeans; and money, the wherewithal to obtain these luxuries, was tempting." (Kwame Nkrumah. The Autobiography, Panaf London, I957, 1979, P 213). What Nkrumah did not see, until it was too late, was that the leadership's political choice, the decision to adopt the European colonial economic and social model instead of creating an African model, would have such devastating long-term effects on African society.
As for the characters in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, they see the same social realities described by the leader, but from the bottom up, and therefore not with the indulgent forbearance of the leader, but in sorrow and despair. They see labour activists, grown popular battling colonial administrators and their unjust privileges, now occupying posts and enjoying perks ceded them by the same European oppressors.
They see formerly impoverished party activists displaying frenetic energy cutting illegal deals to enrich themselves and their families, all just so that they can integrate into the material universe of Europeans, as if that had been the aim of African struggles all along, leaving former comrades and followers perplexed.
The notion that this loss of integrity concerns only the charismatic leader's lieutenants, but not himself, can only come from a misreading of the political facts, and a confusion of simple personal honesty with the much more complex issue of political integrity. For in the real historical situation on the ground, the core betrayal came in a development gravid with symbolic implications: the leader's acceptance of the colonial governor's suggestion that he move his office into the slave raiders' castle as his new seat of popular power.
Sociologically, this symbolised, in almost surrealistic terms, a decision not to create a new African method of governance, but to continue with the same old colonial model, rooted in slavery, that had been the source of so much suffering and injustice in the first place.
In the independence period, no African leadership group escaped this tremendously vicious cultural trap: the invitation to pretend that somehow the old European style of governance could be palavered into a new African solution. Under such circumstances, even the least discerning had to realise, eventually, that independence did not mean the birth of the new, hoped-for African society. Ergo: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. I did not see the title until I had actually finished writing the book. One day I went to Accra from the Legon University campus, where I had been living with an Egyptian friend while re-planning, drafting and polishing the book, and there I saw a minibus with the slogan painted on it: "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born".
I knew at once I had my title. It was an uncanny kind of serendipity. Just when I was ready for a title, here was a perfect suggestion. No other words, no other image, could express my theme as precisely as the driver's slogan. Even the misspelling brought a positive contribution, suggesting a deeper meaning than the flat word "beautiful". I was curious as to where the minibus driver had found the words. I looked forward to seeing him again one day, and asking him to let me photograph his bus and slogan for my book cover. I intended to find out from him where he had encountered the enigmatic Osirian figure, the Beautyful One, if indeed that was the inspiration for his slogan.
I wondered if he, or the owner of the vehicle, might be connected in some way with a Masonic lodge, since it seemed altogether unlikely that he had come upon the words by simple accident. I asked a skilled photographer friend, the Barbadian scholar Orlando Marville, to accompany me on a search, but though I talked to people at the bus station who had seen the vehicle on its routine trips, I never saw the minibus again.
Still, I had had the incredible luck of finding the perfect title for my theme; I was naturally interested in having the jacket blurb express it as accurately as possible. Had I been close to the publishing process, I would have wanted the blurb to reflect at least some knowledge of the cultural background.
Knowledge of the source of the title would have made an understanding of the novel's content absolutely clear: that the expected birth of a new, innovative, egalitarian society in Africa, symbolised initially by the rise of such nationalist leaders as Kwame Nkrumah, had for some reason been aborted, and would have to await a future time.
But partly because of the esoteric nature of the title's source, and also because the idea of beauty had conventionally been reduced to its most superficial aspect, as in the Hollywood phrase "the beautiful people", the book's core theme, the delayed birth of a new African society, was frequently overlooked in a fascination with themes certainly present in the book, but always in peripheral, contrapuntal and complementary roles: decay, corruption, loss of integrity, the death of dreams.
As for the word "yet", in the title, signaling that the expected social birth had only been postponed, not abrogated, some commentaries ignored it outright. Since the thematic thrust of the book was imaged in the possibility and timing of that birth, critics who first sidestepped the cultural identity and social meaning of "the beautyful ones", and then overlooked the meaning of the word "yet", inexorably threw away the two most important keys to an understanding of the novel.
As author, I bore a good part of the responsibility for this under-reading of the book's meaning. Months before publication, I had supplied Mrs Dorothy de Santillana, then senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, Boston, with a blurb I considered accurate, and she had accepted it.
Days before publication, however, I received an express message: someone at the publishing house had decided to substitute a different blurb for mine. I looked at it and was appalled. My blurb had been focused on the content of the book. The substitute blurb pushed the book aside and placed the author's person at the centre of attention, as if the novel were about me. There was something said about my being Harvard-educated, and having had to leave Africa because the only reality inside the continent was rot, corruption, etc.
After finishing the book, I had indeed left Ghana, not because of anything connected with the book, but because I had sought work as a journalist in Ghana, been denied available jobs I was qualified to do, had then applied for a magazine reporter's job in Paris, and got it.
My job in Paris was exciting, instructive and stressful all at once. It included an immense assignment, the French-to-English translation and editing of an encyclopedic yearbook on every country in Africa. It was the kind of job my curiosity pushed me to want to complete, even if the deadline was unreasonably short.
I finished the work, but lost so much sleep and energy doing it that I was on my way to the hospital, suffering from acute exhaustion, when I received the substitute blurb. Too exhausted to fixate on a blurb, I let it go to press. The negative consequences of that decision have been such that I have since then always insisted on writing my own blurbs.
Now I do not want to give too much importance to the power of blurbs. The inaccurate blurb from Houghton Mifflin Publishers may have misled some readers, but I suppose the majority of readers who trusted in their own judgment and read the text intelligently reached an independent assessment, pro or con. That is as it should be.
Occasionally, some reader takes offence at a purely artistic aspect of the book, such as its imagery. For example, I opted for a deliberately sustained emphasis on descriptive presentation. That is an artistic challenge, accepted because I saw it as the best way to treat the chosen theme.
That is why, though the novel does not neglect narrative and thematic values, in its execution it places a cleat emphasis on descriptions of situations, locales and scenes. And because the thematic energy behind the descriptive options happens to come from issues of degeneration pushing back the promise of regeneration, certain puritanical readers have sometimes condemned the book as unnecessarily coprophilic.
My response is that in descriptive fiction, the details are there for a purpose, and if on reading this book any readers feel disgusted with the images of corruption, the only crime they can accuse me of is that of effective writing. To that charge I plead guilty with no attenuating circumstances.
A few reactions to the book, however, have been bluntly hostile, the most extreme example being the attack Chinua Achebe, the Igbo novelist, launched against the book and its author shortly after its publication.
(Next issue, Ayi Kwei Armah writes to Chinua Achebe.)
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2009|
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