Note on Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born  resembles a morality tale (of
spiritual death) in many ways. In a morality tale, the characters are more important for
what they symbolize or represent than for what they are. It is not so much the
examination of an individual’s fate or a special event that we are here interested in as
the presentation of the moral, the truth behind a parable, as it were. Appropriately
therefore, the setting is vague, while the characters carry generic labels like the Man,
the silent one, the watcher (sleeping “ watchman”) the giver, (4) the teacher
(symbolically nude to suggest innocence or purity) the loved ones (dead spiritually due
to carnal desires) etc. Even Koomson whose characterization is a little elaborate is a
symbolic politician. The commuters are “walking corpses”. Religious references like “
Passion week”, “Jesus wept”, “Onward Christian Soldier”, “Sister Maanan”, “Abednego
Yamoah”, “Zacharias Lagos” strengthen the atmosphere of symbolism.

The prevalence of this kind of labelling is a clear hint that the key to interpreting this
novel lies in a careful unravelling of symbols. The story begins with the description of
events in a rickety bus. A bus conductor is busy trying to filch from the day’s collection.
He feels guilt when he notices that not all the commuters have alighted. His guilt
however gives way to indignation when he notices that the man (our hero) who he
thought had been watching him was actually asleep with eyes wide open. At the
symbolic level, however, the event is much more significant than the surface structure
meaning. The event is a parabolic reflection of the newly-independent African state.

The benighted and rusty bus (5) is the State and its lights move, significantly,
“uncertainly down the road” casting vague circles that catch objects indistinctly. While at
a halt, it shudders endlessly and spasmodically as if about to fall to pieces. The author
calls this a “ death raffle” (6). There could hardly be a more apt representation of many
of our present third-world fledgling democracies.

The driver takes out a “bent cigarette” from a “crumpled pocket”. He has filthy habits:
he spits “a generous gob of mucus against the tire”. The matches he uses are of poor
manufacture. The man who takes the driving seat in the State is therefore also an apt
reflection of the condition of the State.

The conductor must then represent the executives of the state. Citizens are
represented as suffering sleep-walkers, dreamers, from whom, nevertheless, the
conductor steals, through short-changing. His love for lucre is placed in pejorative light
as he deeply inhales the rotten stench of the new cedi (currency note) Startled by “the
watcher” he crumbles psychologically but soon regains himself when he realises that
the watcher is a “silent one” with natural and base appetites like his. He immediately
thinks of bribing him but this proves unnecessary when he finds out that, not only was
this a citizen who had no guts to speak out against uncovered fraud, this was one who
was actually “asleep”, a nonentity, as it were. The lesson here is almost overt: the
boldness and even indignation of the corrupt official subsists on our collective silence
and somnolence. It is obvious therefore that the events narrated are of less importance
than what they represent.

The several images of filth seek to capture the moral decadence of the Ghanaian or
indeed acculturated African society. There is the prevalence of phlegm and spittle. The
watcher is actually “entangled”(5) in “the mess” (6) and cleans up the dribble with his
buttocks!. When the driver lands him a blob of phlegm right on the face and he slinks
off without protesting, his later image as a chichidodo feeding
in excrement is placed in
pertinent perspective: corruption is all-embracing. The conductor in fact “eats” his
phlegm during his bride-bid. Even the programmatic attempt to keep the country clean
by keeping the city clean merely leads to waste bins overflowing with rubbish (7). The
banister at the office block resists polish.

The filthy public toilets (105) would be seen in the same light. The old man sleeping with
mouth open and freely breathing in the stench has an author-imposed internal
monologue rationalising that he could not possibly play the fool by holding his breath.
This association of survival (life) with corruption is a steady refrain throughout the
novel. Koomson saves his life by escaping through a faeces-covered toilet-bucket
aperture. While in hiding he farts freely (190ff) It is significant that the man follows
Koomson through the “shit-hole”. That he helps Koomson at all is significant. The
sexual drawings in the public latrines also develop this motif by tacitly linking sex with

At instances, this philosophy is pushed to absurd extremities and green fruits are
judicially contrasted with ripened fruits (145): the natural result of saprophytic bacterial
action; a kind of rottening process. The teacher’s theme is actually that the land wants
dead people for its dead self and the only way to avoid contamination is to refuse to
participate (55) (Rama Krishna feeds only on fruits!) It is this escapist philosophy that
causes his mother to chase him away from the mansion in his dream (69). He would not
be allowed to feed from what he calls shit. Kofi Billy takes his own life when cannabis
gives him insight into the fact of life’s essential corruption and aimlessness. Optimists
like Maanan who had had high hopes for independence invariably flee into insanity in
the circumstance. For, even after the military coup, corruption remains (the road-block
and watchman bribes) as summed up by the commercial vehicle’s “The beautyful ones
are not yet born” .The spelling of “beautiful” stresses the theme just like the story of the
men in the dark cave who would scorn the bringer of “unwanted light” (79ff). Earlier, the
hero had become aware of the inevitability of darkness and decay (47ff) Corrupt
Zacharias Lagos was pitied by all when he was caught at last (96/97)

It has been argued that rather than espousing a doctrine of resignation Armah is
actually calling the sensitive and thinking members of society to action. After the coup,
the Man’s wife, who had throughout goaded him to “drive fast” if he ever hoped to travel
far (an image for success through corruption) tells him she is glad he never became like
Koomson. Seen this way, the novel becomes a satire on corrupt practices like bribery,
abuse of office (Abednego, 96) fraud (boat business) sex mania, indolence, smuggling
(89) Western mentality ( Estella, Koomson’s wife, the been-to son; the ludicrous names
(126) like Binful, Fentengson; Kuntu–Blankson; Koomson) government neglect (
squalor, penury, health: the coughing child, filth) all contrasting with the opulence of the
new “whites”, the new colonialists, the golfers.

In this perspective, the man is an Everyman, especially the elite who has continued to
prove unheroic and impotent in the face of overwhelming corruption. A hero is a person
who dares to assert the resilience of the human spirit in the face of ineluctable
malignant forces. He is not deterred by possible failure. The mere assertion, the implicit
defiance is sufficient statement, is enough success. But our prototypal elite dramatized
in the Man offers only feeble resistance to the corruption boat deal, the Merchant’s
offer of bribe, the articulate thesis of “ the loved ones” on the inevitability of
putrefaction. He offers no philosophy to the Merchant why his bribe is rejected. His
answer to “What is wrong?” is “I don’t know”. He is therefore adrift without any moral
mooring in the flux that is modern African society.

It is not surprising therefore that he is despised by the loved ones as a bird that abhors
faeces but relishes the maggots that thrive therein. They query his willingness to share
in the fruits of corruption while seemingly posturing as a moral crusader. He is therefore
freely insulted by the mother–in–law, the corrupt merchant (107) the bus conductor (
“article of no commercial value”) and actually “ flees” when spat upon contemptuously
by the bus driver (7). The taxi driver inveighs that he is a “ worthless life” (9) among
several other unprintable invectives. He is the sleeping watcher and self–assesses
himself as a coward and a fool (51) The message is that the elite, despite his
enlightenment, is not the saviour. The beautiful ones are not yet born.

Between the pessimistic and optimistic perspectives lie that of those who see the novel
as neither tragic nor satiric but profoundly philosophical, advocating a recognition that
wholeness and corruption are inextricably mixed up. This could appear to be the
belated recognition fluttering in the consciousness of psychotic Maanan and which she
symbolically adumbrates in her interminable attempt to separate the sea-sand into
grains (180). This perspective discerns an elemental fusion at the end of the novel
buttressing this advocacy for seeming neutrality. At the end we have a bird singing on
the roof of the school latrine. The caption in the oval is juxtaposed against a lone flower
highlighting the theme of  “new flowering” from “putrescence” (85) Other critics have
suggested the cleansing effect of the sea on the protagonists. The cloud rhythm, the
steps, all help suggest this unanimity.

Finally we would mention in passing that the novel is often critisized for its morbid pre-
occupation with putrefaction (124) Owomoyela accuses Armah of having an over-
censorious individual sensibility and a finicky penchant for cataloguing faults. It is as if
we are forced to view life through the jaundiced prism of a protagonist who is
pathologically bored (20) Making matters worse is the fact earlier broached that he is a
type. He is not memorable or life-like and appears to have been concocted for the sole
purpose of pushing down our throats a doctrinaire authorial world-view. This, coupled
with the streaks of tedious didacticism (62,88) laced with nakedly illustrative
unassimilated anecdotes, gives the impression that the work is full of artistic blots or
blunders. Why, for example, is the man’s love for rectitude not predicated on any
plausible ineluctable experience or persuasion? Could not the author have capitalized
on the predominance of the reflective mode to shore up his psychological realism?
Given the impressive use of circumstantial details, this would have greatly improved
verisimilitude and in turn latched the story more effectively onto the reader’s mind. The
abrupt shift from a third-person point of view to the Teacher’s first-person sermonizings
would also appear to be a flaw in narrative technique. On the whole the novel could do
with less narrativeness/discursiveness and more dramatization of event through
displayed action and actualizing dialogue.