Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

For more than three decades, Alexandre Biyidi (Beti’s real name) has used comic satire, precise observation, and incisive analysis to create a continual record of Cameroon’s transition from a colonial state to an independent nation. While Ville cruelle (1954; cruel town) was a failure critically, even to the point that Biyidi dropped the pseudonym of Ezra Boto forever, The Poor Christ of Bomba, his second novel, earned just praise, although it was translated much later than his two subsequent novels, Mission terminee (1957; Mission to Kala, 1958) and Le Roi miracule (1958; King Lazarus, 1960). After these early novels, which helped create the genre of the francophone anticolonial novel, Biyidi, continuing to write under the name of Mongo Beti because it provided limited safety from persecution, turned his darkening vision of colonial Africa to a satirical attack on Cameroon, Tumul-tueux Cameroun (1959; tumultuous Cameroon). Having returned from Franceas his country prepared for independence only to be jailed briefly as a political suspect, he left Cameroon to return to France, living in exile and teaching French literature. After a decade of silence, he began where he had left off, publishing a scathing attack on the ruling elite of Cameroon, Main basse sur le Cameroun (1972; the plundering of Cameroon), which was suppressed in both Cameroon and France. Almost as if to complete a circle, Biyidi, still writing as Beti, turned again to fiction, examining the position of women in post-colonial Cameroon through two subsequent novels.

In addition to affording a measure of political distance, Biyidi’s pen name has helped him establish an intellectual distance that was once rare among modern African writers. He spares no race or nationality in his early satires, yet the absence of bitterness and self-pity that Beti achieves through his wit, humor, and racy dialogues constitutes the emergence of the African comic novel. While Biyidi might be said to have created a singularly thorough and successful record of the failure of French West African colonialism and independence, it is the ring of laughter from an otherwise grim period of African history on which the reputation of The Poor Christ of Bomba will endure.