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 corruption.

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