Beti, Mongo 1932–2001
Mongo Beti 1932–2001
Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, under the pen name of Alexandre Biyidi-Awala, wrote several sharply satirical novels in French critical of colonial and post-colonial African politics. Beti used his fiction as a vehicle to condemn the imposition of European culture on African peoples, but also negatively portrayed those Africans who came to power—and then abused it—in nations like Cameroon. He died on October 8, 2001. His death prompted London’s Guardian newspaper to call him “one of the foremost African writers of the independence generation,” journalist Kaye Whiteman declared. “His biting satires of the colonial period still rank among the best African novels. He also acquired the status of an icon, as a brilliant political polemicist who never gave up on his radicalism.”
Beti was born Alexandre Biyidi-Awala in 1932 near M’Balmayo, Cameroon, when the west central African nation was still a colony of France. His family had a cocoa plantation in this southern part of the country, and when he was ejected from school at age 14 for insubordination, the future writer worked in its groves for a time. He eventually finished school and left for France to attend the University of Aix-Marseille. He went on to the Sorbonne in Paris, a university whose heady intellectual reputation attracted other politically-minded young men and women from African nations. Their families were often at least prosperous enough to send them abroad, and such exiles were sharply critical of colonialism and its legacy on African political, social, cultural, and economic traditions. Beti joined their ranks as well, and wrote his first novel, Ville cruelle (“Cruel City”), under the pseudonym Eza Boto. The city of the title is a newly industrialized area, whose African residents are uneasy with a transition that forces them to survive by working dangerous jobs in newly created lumber mills and rail yards. He later distanced himself from the 1954 novel, feeling that it was not the finest example of his writing.
Critics consider his first work published under the pseudonym Mongo Beti, 1956’s The Poor Christ of Bomba, as one of the writer’s finest. The novel is set in the 1930s in Cameroon, and features themes that World Literature Today writer Robert P. Smith Jr. described as “familiar Mongo Beti territory.” These
At a Glance…
Born Alexandre Biyidi-Awala, June 30, 1932, in Akometam, near M’Balmayo, Cameroon; died October 8, 2001; married Odile Tobner (a teacher), late 1950s; children: three. Education: Attended University of Aix-MarseiIle; Sorbonne, B.A. (with honors); University of Paris, M.A., 1966. Politics: Marxist.
Career: Educator in Lamballe, France; secondary education instructor in classical Greek, Latin, and French literature in Rouen, France. Writer, 1953-01.
Awards: Twice awarded the French Academy’s Sainte-Beuve Prize, for Mission Accomplished and King Lazarus.
included “origins of fear, persecution, repression, betrayal, conspiracy, tribal conflict, war, revolt, corruption, and the violence and politics of power in post-colonial African republics,” Smith noted. The work centers on a French missionary, Father Drumont, who visits villagers and attempts to convert them from their indigenous religion to Christianity. He also strives to keep them, at the same time, from adopting Western-style materialistic values that he has witnessed elsewhere among the newly converted. Drumont is saddened to learn that the villagers only agreed to convert because they hoped it would bring them prosperity. He is further devastated when he finds that the “sixa,” a missionary house for young African women who live there to learn traditional “wifely” ways, has become a den of venereal disease.
Beti’s second novel, Mission Accomplished, took the Sainte-Beuve prize of the French Academy around the time of its 1957 publication. Its protagonist is Jean-Marie Medza, who fails his exams at a French secondary school, and returns home. His family sends him to a distant village, Kala, to bring back the runaway wife of a relative. The Kala villagers treat Medza as a brilliant, distinguished guest, and shower him with presents. He even takes a wife, but the longer he remains in the remote, unsophisticated community, the more he realizes how little he knows about life. Beti garnered further literary acclaim and another Sainte-Beuve prize for his next work, King Lazarus. Its plot centers around a polygamous tribal chief who heeds a priest’s urging to convert and divest himself of his many wives. The chief keeps just one, and turns the others out; irate, they complain to authorities, and a tribunal is held in which each side presents its case.
Beti lived a politically committed life outside of his fiction as well. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he had ties to the Union des Peuples Camerounais (UPC), a Marxist group in Cameroon. The country achieved independence from France in 1960, but Beti was critical of the new government in the capital city of Yaoundeé. He penned articles for the journals Tumultueux Cameroun and Revue camerounaise, but living in his native land became dangerous because of his political opinions and connections to the UPC. He moved to France in the early 1960s, taking a job as a teacher of classical Greek, Latin, and French literature in Rouen, and did not write fiction for the next ten years.
An essay titled “The Plundering of Cameroon,” published in 1972, revived Beti’s status in Cameroon as an opinion-maker. Some of it discussed the final, failed UPC rebellion, whose leader was publicly executed in 1970. The work also gained some notoriety in France, where it was banned and seized because of its criticism of Cameroonian politics. Like other African nations in the years following independence, the country had become a one-party state by then.
The attention from “The Plundering of Cameroon” helped spark Beti’s creativity, and he returned to writing novels again. These portrayed life in Cameroon after independence, such as Remember Ruben from 1973, which follows the story of orphaned Mor-Zamba, who is adopted by a village. When he grows into adulthood and wants to marry the daughter of the community’s most esteemed family, he is forcibly sent away to a labor camp. Eighteen years later, he is reunited with his best friend from childhood, and learns the reasons for his internal exile. In a 1979 sequel, Lament for an African Pol, Mor-Zamba becomes a political opposition leader named Ruben Um Nyobe.
Beti began a political journal with his wife, Odile Tobner, Peuples noirs, peuples africains (“Black People, African People”), and returned to Cameroon in the early 1990s. He owned a book store there and continued to write polemical tracts and novels. His later works include Trop de soleil tue l’amour: Roman (“Too Much Sun Kills the Love”), which appeared in French in 1999. Its plot borrows some elements from the African detective genre in its story of Zamakwe, a political journalist and jazz fan. The theft of his extensive music collection and the mysterious kidnapping of his girlfriend set in motion a chain of events that bring him to a militia group and its leader. Writing in World Literature Today, the critic Smith observed that the novel followed certain themes found in Beti’s work. He “criticizes repressive forces, external as well as internal, which keep his fellow Africans in an unbearable state of subordination,” Smith wrote, and the critic concluded that the novel “retains much of Beti’s powerful reasoning, sometimes deadly serious and sometimes familiarly humorous. His storytelling technique remains vibrant and captivating.”
Zamakwe’s story was continued in Branle-bas en noir et blanc: Roman (“Commotion in Black and White”), which appeared in 2000. Here, Zamakwe’s friend Eddie dreams of a career as a detective, but all mock his ambitions, reminding him that solving crimes in a society where the police force is so corrupt is an impossible dream. The plot centers around Eddie’s search for the missing Zamakwe. Another reviewer for World Literature Today, Marco D. Roman, observed that the novel “holds up a mirror to African society in order to wake it into a realization of the imposed images put upon it by its own corrupt government as well as by those Western institutions that force Africans to view themselves as unable.”
Beti died in Douala, Cameroon on October 8, 2001, from renal complications. He was survived by his wife and three children. He had been invited to read excerpts from his books at a Harvard University Bookstore event on October 21st, along with Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat and Olive Senior, the Jamaican writer. Instead, organizers decided to make the reading a memorial tribute to Beti. “He was such an important figure in the development of African literature in French,” a scholar at Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute of Afro-American Research, Andrew Horn, told Africana.com writer Tanu T. Henry. “When his novels first came out they came as a shock to many in Europe and as gratification to many in Africa.”
(Under pseudonym Eza Boto) Ville cruelle (title means “Cruel City”), Editions Africaines, 1954.
Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba, Laffont, 1956, translation by Gerald Moore published as The Poor Christ of Bomba, Heinemann Educational [London], African Writers Series, 1971.
Mission terminee, Buchet Chastel/Correa, 1957, translation by Peter Green published as Mission Accomplished, Macmillan, 1958, published in England as Mission to Kala, Muller, 1958, rewritten by John Davey and published as Mission to Kala (illustrated by Peter Edwards), Heinemann Educational, African Writers Series, 1964.
Le Roi miracule: Chronique des Essazam, Buchet Chastel/Correa, 1958, English translation published as King Lazarus, Muller [London], 1960, published as King Lazarus: A Novel (introduction by O.R. Dathorne), Macmillan/Collier, 1971.
Main basse sur le Cameroun: Autopsie d’une decolonisation (political essay; title means “The Plundering of Cameroon”), F. Maspero, 1972.
Remember Ruben (title in pidgin English), Buchet Chastel, 1973, translation by Gerald Moore published under the same title, Three Continents Press, 1980.
Perpetue et l’habitude du malheur, Buchet Chastel, 1974, translation by John Reed and Clive Wake published as Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness, Heinemann Educational, African Writers Series, 1978.
La Ruine presque cocasse d’un polichinelle: Remember Ruben deux, L’Harmattan, 1979, translation by Richard Bjornson published as Lament for an African Pol, Three Continents Press, 1985.
Les Deux Meres de Guillaume Ismael Dzewatama: Futur Camionneur, Buchet Chastel, 1982.
La Revanche de Guillaume Ismael Dzewatama, Buchet Chastel, 1984.
Lettre ouverte aux Camerounais, ou, La deuxieme mort de Ruben Um Nyobe, L’Harmattan, 1986.
(With Odile Tobner) Peuples noirs, peuples africains, L’Harmattan, 1989.
La France contre l’Afrique; Retour au Cameroun, La Decouverte, 1993.
L’histoire du fou; roman, Julliard, 1994.
Trop de soleil tue l’amour: Roman (title means “Too Much Sun Kills the Love”), Julliard, 1999.
Branle-bas en noir et blanc: Roman (title means “Commotion in Black and White”), Julliard, 2000.
The Story of the Madman, translated by Elizabeth Darnel, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 2001.
Guardian (London, England), October 25, 2001.
Research in African Literatures, Fall 1993, p. 25; Summer 2000, p. 91.
World Literature Today, Autumn 1994, p.861; Autumn 2000, p. 792; Winter 2002, p. 120.
Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001.
“Mongo Beti Remembered,” http://www.africana.com/DailyArticles/index_20011108.htm (June 11, 2002).
Mongo Beti (born 1932) was one of the great Francophone novelists from Africa. His works satirize the French colonial world and dramatize the dilemmas of the quasi-Westernized African in acrid, sometimes ribald language and outrageous scenes.
Mongo Beti was born Alexandre Biyidi on June 30, 1932, in M'balmayo, a small village of the Beti people about 30 miles south of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. At 19 he received the baccalaureate from the lycée at Yaoundé, and in 1951 he went to France on a scholarship to take advanced studies in literature, first at Aix-en-Provence and then at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1966 he received the agrégation, or teaching certificate, from the University of Paris.
While a student at Aix he wrote his first (now selfrepudiated) novel, Ville Cruelle (Cruel City), published in 1954 under the nom de plume Eza Boto. Considered a weak novel, it demonstrates strength in its melodramatic but often compelling naiveté, and it well expresses the confusion experienced by the rural Africans crowding into the new industrial lumber and pulping town of Tanga South, "the kingdom of logs."
First Novels Reveal Anti-Imperialist Sentiments
One of the major weaknesses of Ville Cruelle was its long, confessional monologues, but in his second novel, Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; The Poor Christ of Bomba), Beti mastered the exclamatory monologue to indict both France and the Church through the naive musings of the acolyte Denis, assistant to the well-meaning but ever obtuse Reverend Father Superior Drumont.
Mission Terminée (1957), Beti's third novel, is possibly one of his most successful and deeply humorous works. Again, his hero is a naïf whose initiation into life educates the reader into African verities as seen by an African. Here, however, the young Medza, having failed at the lycée, is initiated "backwards" into the life of the relatively untouched village of Kala, where his uncle's runaway wife has fled. Sent by his own village to reclaim her, Medza learns to appreciate and then to respect the older life and, more particularly, becomes willing to accept the help of his heroic-sized "country" cousin, Zambo. Though at the novel's close the two leave Kala and even Africa for a life of wandering, Medza has discovered that "the tragedy which our nation is suffering today is that of a man left to his own devices in a world which does not belong to him, which he has not made and does not understand."
Beti's fourth novel, Le Roi Miraculé (1958; King Lazarus), confronts a powerful, pagan king with the missionary fervor of Le Guen, Drumont's vicar in the earlier years of The Poor Christ of Bomba. Though priding himself on being more astute and sensitive than the bumbling Drumont, Le Guen stirs up so much confusion and anger in the court of the king that the French Colonial Office has him recalled, for though Paris loves the Church it loves order and decorum much more.
Writer in Exile
Staunchly opposed to the foreign-controlled government in what was then French Cameroon, Beti moved to France. There, finding he could not support himself by writing, even with three well-received and increasingly popular novels to his credit, he turned to teaching, eventually gaining a professorship at a lycée in Rouen where he taught Latin, Greek, and French. A convinced Marxist, he refused to return to his native country even after it achieved independence in 1960. Despite professing himself anxious to visit Africa, he remained hostile to the Yaoundé regime of President Ahmadou Ahidjo. Instead, Beti remained in France with his wife and their three children, and devoted himself to teaching for more than a decade.
In 1972 Beti published a political essay critical of the Yaoundé government. Titled "The Plundering of Cameroon, the essay condemned Ahidjo and his officers as a puppet government of his country's former colonial rulers. The problems of decolonization would serve as the focus of the novels that Beti would once again begin to write.
In works that include Remember Ruben (1973) and Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness (1974), Beti turns a satirical eye upon the situation in the Cameroon, creating the fictitious dictator Baba Toura as the focus of his political satire. In Remember Ruben, a young orphan is take in by some villagers and befriended by a village boy. The two grow up and, though they part company for several years, eventually reunite; one as a revolutionary leader, and the other as a cast-off from an unjust society. The two characters would also serve as the subject of a 1979 work by Beti translated as Lament for an African Pol, which follows the effort of the two friends to start a revolt against the rule of unjust tribal chiefs. Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness also illustrates the inequities in postcolonial Cameroon through the lives of individuals, this time also depicting the lowly social status of that country's women. The novel would be adapted as a play in 1981.
Retains Focus on Political Injustice
Continuing to write from his self-imposed exile in France, Beti has woven his political concerns—particularly his concerns over continued French political influence in Cameroon—throughout his fiction. Like his novels of the 1970s and the 1980s, L'histoire du Fou (1994) illustrated the two economic and social levels of African society through the relationship between Zoaételeu, a provincial village elder, and his son Narcisse, who is idealistic and in search of meaning in his life. Political repression shadows each of Beti's characters in the novel's complex plot as Zoaételeu is falsely imprisoned without a trial and eventually released, only to find that his beloved son has been killed by an assassin—who turns out to be his own brother. As Robert P. Smith Jr. would note of L'histoire du Fou in World Literature Today, "Beti's reasoning, sometimes dead serious and sometimes familiarly humorous, is powerful, and his style, reminiscent of Balzac with its detailed descriptions and colorful images, and of Proust with its interminable sentences, remains superb."
Information on the life and work of Beti is in Gerald Moore, Seven African Writers (1962); Claude Wauthier, The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa (1964; trans. 1966); Judith Illsley Gleason, This Africa: Novels by West Africans in English and French (1965); A.C. Brench, The Novelists' Inheritance in French Africa (1967); and Wilfred Cartey, Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa (1969). See also the chapter by Jeanette Macaulay in Cosmo Pieterse and Donald Munro, eds., Protest and Conflict in African Literature (1969). □