Mongo Beti A. C. Brench - Essay

A. C. Brench

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 2281 words.)