BORN: 1932, M’balmayo, Cameroon
DIED: 2001, Douala, Cameroon
The Poor Christ of Bomba (1956)
King Lazarus (1958)
Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness (1974)
Mongo Beti. © Bassouls Sophie / Corbis Sygma
Alexandre Biyidi, who published under the name Mongo Beti, was one of the first French-speaking African novelists to combine humor and perceptive social criticism. He is widely recognized as a master among African writers of all languages.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Cameroon to France. Born in the small town ofM’balmayo, located in the French-controlled territory of Cameroon on the western coast of Africa, Beti’s given name was Alexandre Biyidi. Beti was educated in local French missionary schools until his expulsion for unknown reasons at the age of fourteen. He then attended the lycee in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde. He went to France in 1951, studying first at the University of Aix-en-Provence and then at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he received his licence, or BA, with honors. Later, Beti began teaching French literature, classical Greek, and Latin in various lycees in France.
While he was a student at Aix, Beti wrote and published his first novel, Cruel City, under the pseudonym Eza Boto. Beti’s often controversial reputation began with three works published in close succession between 1956 and 1958: The Poor Christ of Bomba, Mission Accomplished, and King Lazarus. Although these works were well received by critics, they made little money for their author, and Beti found it necessary to teach in order to support himself and his family.
As a committed Marxist, or believer in the rights of the workers and the goal of a class-free society, he refused to return to Cameroon when it achieved independence in 1960. He was hostile to the new Yaounde regime of President Ahmadou Ahidjo, who had structured the new country’s government to provide himself with far-reaching power and silence his critics. Beti instead remained in France with his family, devoting himself to teaching.
Topical Criticism. In 1972 Beti published a political essay, ‘‘The Plundering of Cameroon.’’ In it, he criticized the Yaounde regime for remaining under the control of the French long after Cameroon’s formal liberation in 1960. For years Beti had written essays on current affairs in Africa, but with ‘‘The Plundering of Cameroon’’ he shifted from a historical perspective to an essentially topical one. Soon after, Beti published two novels, Remember Ruben and Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness. In Remember Ruben, Beti emphasized the corruption of national politics through glimpses of the harshness of individual lives, a theme he explored again in Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness, a critique of the slavelike conditions of the modern woman in contemporary Africa.
Return to Cameroon Beti visited Cameroon in 1991 after a self-imposed absence of thirty-two years. When he retired from teaching in 1994, he returned permanently to Cameroon, where he opened a bookshop in the capital to encourage literacy and provide an opportunity for authors to sell their critical texts. During this period, Beti supported an opposition political party, and the government attempted to suppress his activities. He published several novels in response, but his final trilogy remained unfinished at his death on October 8, 2001.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Beti's famous contemporaries include:
John Updike (1932—): Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer who chronicles the Protestant middle class.
V. S. Naipaul (1932—): Trinidadian-born British writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.
Shintaro Ishihara (1932—): Japanese author and politician who won the Akutagawa Prize for Best New Author of the Year in 1956.
Manuel Puig (1932-1990): Argentinian novelist whose best-known work, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976), was made into a film and a Broadway musical.
Susan Sontag (1933-2004): American writer and political activist who created numerous controversies with her literary and political statements.
Norman Rush (1933—): American novelist whose stories are set in Botswana.
Works in Literary Context
In his early novels, Beti unleashed his sense of humor to create a series of harsh but comic indictments of French colonial rule in Cameroon. Later, in Remember Ruben (1974) and Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness 1974), Beti criticized the corruption he witnessed in Cameroon during the years of independence.
Disdain for the Colonial System. When it was first published, The Poor Christ of Bomba was banned outright in French Africa and was controversial in France, where critics defended the French record in Africa against Beti’s account. Beti followed with Mission Accomplished, the story of young, Western-educated Jean-Marie Medza and his mission to retrieve the wayward wife of a relation in ‘‘primitive’’ Kala. In King Lazarus, Beti’s next offering, a missionary persuades the polygamous tribal chief of the Essazam to convert to Christianity and give up all but one of his wives. The twenty-two former wives and their families, outraged at the breach of tribal custom as well as at the rudeness of turning the women out of their home, protest to the French colonial authorities. In the confrontation between the civil administration, the missionary, and the tribal chief, Beti exposes the vices of each party.
The Unexpected Comedic Elements of Colonialism. While Beti’s early work has been called “astonishingly varied,’’ there are at least two elements common to all the novels: humor and disdain for the colonial system. This mixture of comedy and contempt had little precedent in the history of African fiction. As Fernando Lambert maintained in a 1976 Yale French Studies essay, ‘‘By adopting two antithetical levels of representation—the tragedy of the fate forced upon Africans by colonization and the comedy of characters and situations made possible by such a state of affairs—Beti establishes a form ofdialectic which allows the necessary demystification of colonial pretensions and also the affirmation of Negro humor. ... Beti is the first to open this path to African literature.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Beti's works are consistently critical of the colonial system in Africa, both before and after independence. Here are some other works that are similarly critical:
Things Fall Apart (1958), a novel by Chinua Achebe. This novel depicts tribal life in Nigeria both before and after the coming of the colonial system.
Concierto barroc (1974), a novel by Alejo Carpentier. This novel tells the story of the consciousness raising of an upper-class Mexican during the colonial period of the eighteenth century.
Waiting for the Rain (1975), a novel by Charles Mongoshi. This novel explores the effects of settler colonialism on African lives and culture through the story of an extended family living on a ''native reservation'' in Rhodesia.
Works in Critical Context
Many critics regard Beti as one of the greatest French- language novelists of Africa. As critic Robert P. Smith Jr. concluded in CLA Journal, Beti is ‘‘one of the best of the contemporary black African novelists who seek to promote true liberty in Africa and to insure a lasting dignity for her.’’
Cruel City Beti has repudiated his first novel, Cruel City. This work is generally considered weak and melodramatic, but Gerald Moore, writing in 1980, claimed that it ‘‘is a rather bad novel, but it is manifestly not the work of a bad writer.’’ Along the same lines, Clive Wake suggested the “substantial work’’ needs more than a ‘‘cursory reading,’’ directing attention to a story that may seem ‘‘awkward and contrived’’ at first, but demands another look. He praised the ‘‘evocative quality’’ of Beti’s language and imagery, particularly those that detail the ‘‘evils of colonialism.’’
Controversy and a Break in Writing Beti’s often controversial reputation began with three works published in close succession between 1956 and 1958: The Poor Christ of Bomba, Mission Accomplished, and King Lazarus. These early works were generally warmly received by critics, though Beti made little money from them and was forced to continue his teaching to make a living. After King Lazarus, he stopped writing novels for more than a decade.
Criticism of Postindependence Africa Beti returned to the novel with Remember Ruben and Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness, both published in 1974. In Remember Ruben, Beti emphasized the corruption of national politics through glimpses of the harshness of individual lives, a theme he explored again in Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness, a critique of the slavelike conditions of the modern woman in contemporary Africa. Critics praised both novels, commending Beti’s new focus on African independence. Writing in CLA Journal in 1976, Smith maintained: ‘‘Mongo Beti has broken his silence, not to criticize the colonial past as was his custom, but to accuse the present period of independence and self-government, and to attempt to pave the way to a better future for Africa and Africans.’’
Responses to Literature
1. One critic has noted that Beti sought ‘‘to promote true liberty in Africa.’’ Read one of Beti’s novels. Then write an essay in which you discuss how this novel reflects or aids this cause. Or, in contrast, write about how this particular novel seems to work against Beti’s political and social goals. Use specific examples from the book to support your opinions.
2. Beti lived in a self-imposed exile from Cameroon for over thirty years. With a group of your classmates, discuss what impact this absence might have had on his writings about his homeland. Also explore the ways in which his distance from the subject of his novels may have helped or hindered his writing. Use specific examples from Beti’s work to support your ideas.
3. At the end of his life, Beti became politically active in his native country. Write an essay that either supports or opposes the practice of novelists turning directly to politics to have an impact on the world.
4. Beti uses humor to show his disdain for the European system of colonialism in Africa. Write an essay analyzing his use of humor, discussing the ways that it detracts from his criticisms and the ways that it makes them more effective.
Arnold, Stephen H., ed. Critical Perspectives on Mongo Beti. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner, 1997.
Brench, A. C. The Novelists’ Inheritance in French Africa. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Cartey, Wilfred. Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa. London: Heinemann, 1969.
Dramae, Kandioura. The Novel as Transformation Myth: A Study of the Novels of Mongo Beti and Ngugi wa Thiong. Syracuse, N.Y.: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1990.
Gleason, Judith Illsley. This Africa: Novels by West Africans in English and French. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1965.
Moore, Gerald. Seven African Writers. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Palmer, Eustace. The Growth of the African Novel. London: Heinemann Educational, 1979.
Pieterse, Cosmo, and Donald Munro, eds. Protest and Conflict in African Literature. New York: Africa Publishing, 1969.
Wauthier, Claude. The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa. New York: Praeger, 1964.