Mongo Beti 1932–2001
(Pseudonym of Alexandre Biyidi; also wrote under the pseudonym Eza Boto) Cameroon francophone novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
Beti has been called among the most perceptive of the French-African writers in his presentations of African life from an African perspective. His first novel, Ville cruelle (1954; Cruel Town), appeared under the name Eza Boto. Although Beti eventually rejected both novel and pen name, the book fore-shadowed the subjects of his later work, especially the confusions experienced by rural villagers trying to adjust to cultural changes in an emerging Africa. Beti's theme is the destructive influence of colonialism, particularly in education and religion, which results in the loss of African identity and tradition. His principal method of conveying his ideas is satire, often presented in colloquial dialect or language inappropriate to the situation, from the viewpoint of a young, naive narrator.
The focus of both Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; The Poor Christ of Bomba) and Le roi miraculé (1958; King Lazarus) is on the attempts of European missionaries to Christianize the Africans. Part of the failure of these attempts stems from the paternalistic assumptions by the priests that the people have no valuable culture of their own and must therefore be enlightened by the West. Mission terminée (1957; Mission to Kala) satirizes the shortcomings of the colonial educational system. Though the book has no European characters, their ideology is embodied in the protagonist, a lycée-educated African student. The pretensions of the student, as of the priests before him, are exposed by the very villagers whom both had discounted as inferior. Recently, after a sixteen-year hiatus from fiction writing, Beti published Remember Ruben (1974), a documentary-styled account of colonial politics. It was followed by Perpetué (1974), a sympathetic treatment of the plight of the modern African woman in a traditional, male-dominated society.
Critics praise Beti for his humanistic presentations of characters from different, even conflicting, viewpoints. While he satirizes misguided missionaries or self-important students, he also sympathizes with them as human beings. In this way, Beti relates specifically African matters to the larger context of humanity in general.
[In Mission terminée] Jean-Marie Medza returns home having failed his second baccalauréat. He discovers, to his horror, that he is the advocate-designate whose responsibility it is to bring back the wayward wife of his distant cousin, Niam.
He sets off towards the unknown mounted on the chief's bicycle. Horror is now replaced by pride and self-satisfaction—until he reaches Kala, the backwood village to which the woman fled. Here, he meets his cousin Zambo and Mama, his cousin's father. They introduce him to the many, varied characters and aspects of their village. (p. 63)
His classical education earns him—and Mama—a fine flock of animals and birds; his new-discovered physical prowess—tutored by Zambo—brings him the distinction of marriage to Edima, young daughter of the chief.
At last Niam's wife returns; she is summarily condemned and fined. Jean-Marie and Edima are immediately dispatched on the path of matrimonial bliss and he then decides to return home to face his father, absent at the beginning of the holiday.
On his return, he discovers that his father's anger is untempered by the delay. Jean-Marie decides to leave Edima, home, flock, everything to go in search of ideal happiness with Zambo, his faithful shadow, always at his side.
While [Ferdinand] Oyono and [Mongo] Beti demonstrate basically the same attitude towards colonial Africa and its inhabitants in their novels, their treatment, style and presentation are different in many ways. Oyono takes the classical situations, an almost stylized representation of colonial life among Europeans and Africans. Beti is an experimenter, creating various situations and examining their evolution and the results. All the various side issues have equally to be analysed and occasionally—as with Kris in Le roi miraculé—a foreign element is added to give a little more spice to the brew. His novels are much more rambling than Oyono's. Many more aspects of colonial life among Africans are dealt with and the novels' effect, from the point of view of social criticism, is less direct, less forceful than those of Oyono. On the other hand, Beti's Europeans are not only the colonial 'type' but also, and more especially, the kind who want to do good for the Africans but, unfortunately for them, start from the premise that all Africans are unable to organize their lives unless helped by Europeans. His favourite butts are, for this reason, missionaries and dedicated colonial administrators.
These innocents, the Reverend Father Le Guen in Le roi miraculé for example, are put among a backwoods people, given an opportunity to do good, according to their lights, and then left to fend for themselves. Their failure and disillusionment are not wholly due to the Africans' positive social qualities but to their more powerful instinctive urge to survive: self-interest is clearly the motivating force behind his characters, Africans and missionaries alike. This primitive and not very creditable reaction is, in the context of Beti's novels, not natural but the result of pressure put upon people by the colonial situation.
Mission terminée is different in some respects from [Le pauvre Christ de Bomba and Le roi miraculé]…. In this novel Europeans are absent. However, Jean-Marie, with his French education, his feeling of superiority and general self-confidence, is an adequate substitute. Initially, he looks upon this mission as a means of parading his superior knowledge. Only later does he realize how inadequate his education and understanding of life really are. (pp. 63-5)
The contrast between Jean-Marie's simple self-confidence and faith in the universal truths taught by the Europeans and the villagers' direct, materialistic approach to life is the foundation of Beti's comedy. It is enhanced by the contrast between Jean-Marie's narrative style and language and the carefully weighed words of the Kalaians…. Jean-Marie, like a three-headed man in a circus, is paraded from compound to compound. He gives his version of world affairs, answers questions and, the following morning new sheep, fowl or sacks of grain add to his wealth. These evening sessions, during which the villagers probe deeper into his learning than any school examiners, make Jean-Marie question the infallibility of his knowledge for the first time. (p. 65)
The situations which the juxtaposition of such contrasting personalities create are a succession of riotous, slap-stick circuses. They are, for the most part, entirely unrelated and are made to appear the result of fortuitous conjunctions of events. Jean-Marie is never able to know for sure what surprise the village and its inhabitants have next in store for him. His stay is a perpetual battle of wits. He wants to maintain his reputation as a cultured man-about-town; they are determined to assimilate everything into their unbending view of life. Jean-Marie appreciates more and more, as his stay lengthens, the positive qualities they have and which he has never been able to acquire. But this is hidden behind the Rabelaisian humour which subjects everything to its influence.
This humour is the expression of a fundamentally brutal attitude to traditional ways and prejudices. Nothing is sacred: prejudices, passions, ideals, purity are all corrupted by Beti's unrelenting laughter and insistence on the physical nature of things. Jean-Marie's first meeting with Edima, his first, tender calf-love is described in...
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All three [of Mongo Beti's novels, Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba, Mission terminée, and Le Roi miraculé,] comment, in a mixture of light-hearted farce and bitter satire, on the problems encountered in the quest for an "intellectual direction," and present us with a critical portrayal of the man of ideas, the potential guide of the disoriented African.
Mongo Beti has not been generally considered in this light. Critics have usually spoken of him as one of Africa's foremost authors, "a formidable satirist and one of the most percipient critics of European colonialism," or, like Wole Soyinka and Robert Pageard, they have stressed his realistic portrayal of African life and praised his work…. In a sense Mongo Beti himself is responsible for this one-sided appreciation of his work, for he has chosen to set his portrayal of the man of ideas in the incongruous locale of the bush village, rather than in the modern city that might have seemed more appropriate. Yet this incongruity is not introduced merely as an effective comic device. It also serves to present the universal problem of disorientation in specifically African terms.
Mongo Beti's African village is situated at the meeting point between traditional communal life and a new awareness of imminent change. Within this context he raises the problem of "intellectual direction" by introducing into the village protagonists who are bearers of Western ideas as well as actual or potential guides for the villagers in their prospective odyssey into the modern world. The novels form a loose trilogy that describes the encounter between the village and the protagonists during the last three decades of European colonial rule: Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba takes place in the late nineteen thirties, at a time when European colonialism is still in complete control of Africa. Le Roi miraculé is set in the late nineteen forties and touches on the liberalization of the colonial regime brought about by the war. In Mission terminée, set in the nineteen fifties, the colonial authorities no longer appear and the action takes place in an entirely African community.
This time-span of some twenty years brings only one essential change to the village. The two novels set in the post-war world highlight a situation of conflict between the generations that is not mentioned in the pre-war world of Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba. Apart from this development,… there is little to distinguish the earthy peasant society of one novel from that of another. It is an essentially pagan society, but pagan in the popular sense of the word, with none of the animist religious tradition that we find in Camara Laye's Kouroussa or Achebe's Umuofia. Mongo Beti's peasants are fun-loving materialists, possessed of an earthy good sense and considerable physical vitality. They live in what is still a stable, at times even stagnant, village society that is tightly ruled by the conventions of African social tradition.
Into this stable peasant world Mongo Beti introduces two types of protagonists: European missionaries and African students. Both of these, as one would expect, bring with them Western ideas, but in the context of Mongo Beti's conception of a materialist and socially conservative African society they also represent a new kind of man whose life is guided by ideas and learning, and not solely by convention or self-interest. These two protagonists follow each other in the chronological sequence of the novel trilogy's epic time. The first novel is dominated by the figure of the "Christ" of the mission of Bomba, the Reverend Father Drumont. In the novel set in the late nineteen forties, Le Roi miraculé, Father Drumont's former assistant, Father Le Guen, shares the spotlight with two African students, Kris and Bitama. In Mission terminée an African student, Jean Medza, is the sole protagonist.
The missionaries are fully rounded figures whose characterization is drawn with a mixture of empathy and critical verve. Mongo Beti avoids the facile anticlericalism that turns the missionary figures of his fellow Camerounian Ferdinand Oyono into caricatures of the most unchristian type of priest, selfish, materialist, and scornful of the black man. Mongo Beti's missionaries have come to Africa inspired by what one might call a "primitivist" Christian faith, a belief in the childlike virtues of the African which should allow him to enter the Kingdom of Heaven far more easily than the white man once he has accepted the Christian message. The missionaries are the only figures in the novels whose life is guided by single-minded devotion to a faith, and they are also the only ones who explicitly believe in a universal humanity that transcends barriers of race and culture…. Yet the missionaries' faith in universal humanity remains purely abstract because their primitivist view of the African leads them to treat him as a pure child of nature with no cultural identity of his own. They cannot even conceive of adapting Christianity to African customs, an inflexibility that seems particularly striking in the representatives of a Church that has always been known for its ability to incorporate indigenous pre-Christian beliefs and practices into its structure.
It comes then as no surprise that the Africans in Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba repeatedly explain the missionary's failure with the statement that "Christ was not a Black man." From the time of the novel's publication, when it provoked considerable protest in Catholic and colonial circles, this has also generally been considered to be the essence of Mongo Beti's thesis. Yet the missionaries in his novels are too complex to be merely typed as the butt of an anticolonialist and anti-Christian satire. The predicament of Father Drumont in particular does not result merely from his disregard of the vitality of African customs. He finds himself defeated as well by the pervasive influence of Western materialist civilization even in the African bush. It was his opposition to this materialism that originally brought him to Africa filled with the hope of converting the natives to the Christian faith and thus protecting them from the forces which had corrupted the Europeans. He discovers, however, that his apparent success during the early years of his...
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[In Ville cruelle] Beti is not yet doing his thing. He is bending over backward in an effort to write a certain European recipe. The ingredients are there: the wicked colonialist, the virtuous blacks, the need to please the stereotyped dying mother. There are inexplicable events that result from an unsureness of artistic control: the convenient loss and recovery of the suitcase, the brother, Koumé, who slips on a log and falls into the river, the happy marriage at the end of the book. Often some of this builds up into sheer melodrama or fairy tale solutions. However, the novel did not exist as a genre in traditional Africa, so the African writer could choose to create his own form of the novel.
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The fact that Mongo Beti, a brilliant and praiseworthy [novelist] …, has broken his silence with another important novel, should not be a news item which provokes great surprise. That the main theme of this author's most recent literary offering, Perpétue, treats of the victimization of the modern African woman in today's independent Africa, is a noteworthy event which should arouse the interest and curiosity of most scholars of African literature. In short, Mongo Beti is taking a critical look at well-known and accepted African traditions, in his homeland as well as in greater Black Africa. (p. 301)
In painting such a depressing picture of a new Africa which has emerged from decades of...
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Someone has suggested [that Beti's Mission to Kala] is a picaresque novel and that the protagonist, Jean-Marie, is a picaresque hero. The statement is misleading because the plot of the classic picaresque novel is mainly episodic, and character growth is almost nil. Beyond this, the classic picaro normally comes from the lowest stratum of society, has little breeding, lives on his wits, and only a very thin line separates his rascality from actual criminality. A picaro is always a prankster and a rascal who begins and ends as one with little or no character development.
But the plot of Mission to Kala is not strung together haphazardly. The story line has causality, and events are...
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A certain Lothrop Stoddard prophesied as follows (the year was 1920):
Certainly, all white men, whether professing christians or not, should welcome the success of missionary efforts in Africa. The degrading fetishism and demonology which sum up the native pagan cults cannot stand, and all Negroes will some day be either christians or moslems….
Mongo Beti is perhaps the most assiduous writer to have taken up the challenge of Mr Stoddard dealing expertly and authentically with the claims of Christianity as a filler of spiritual holes. His weapon is a deceptive generosity which disguises, until the last moment, a destructive logic, incontestible...
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Mongo Beti's work falls within the context of [the] reaction against the imposition of western culture on African society. Taken as a whole it probably gives the most thoroughgoing exposure of the stupidity of the imperialist attempt to devalue traditional education and religion and replace them by an inadequate western educational system and a hypocritical Christian religion. One of the most elegant and sophisticated of African writers, Mongo Beti's urbanity of tone should not lull the reader into a feeling that he is complacent about the issues he raises. His intelligence and wide-ranging wit correlate with a determination to face the uglier realities and expose them.
Beti's first novel The Poor...
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[Remember Ruben] treats of the relationship between individuals and a complex, clouded situation of emerging national politics. When a solitary, young boy arrives at the village of Ekoumdoum, a new dimension enters village life. The youth, renamed Mor-Zamba, lost, coldly reticent and taunted by the villagers, attracts to himself another youth, Abena, a future revolutionary. Abena's sole ambition, symbolically, is to 'get a gun'. Morzamba's ambition to have the daughter of a prominent villager for wife stirs up forces of hostility which lead to his being taken off to a labour camp. Abena goes to look for him, and from then on their actions become larger than their characters….
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[In La ruine presque cocasse d'un polichinelle] Mongo Béti again evokes admiration for the patriot Ruben Um Nyobé, leader of the opposition in Cameroun, whose memory has been preserved in at least two of the author's previous novels (Perpétue and [Remember Ruben] …), and he also continues an account of life under the regime of the insensitive tyrant Baba Toura, a mysterious President of the Republic whose evil shadow hovered over the events in the two previous novels. Toura's administration, which fosters famine, misery, persecution and corruption in the wake of African independence, is perpetuated by evil characters in the novels against whom heroic protagonists struggle constantly so that...
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