Authors: Mongo Beti

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Cameroonian novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Ville cruelle, 1954 (as Eza Boto)

Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba, 1956 (The Poor Christ of Bomba, 1971)

Mission terminée, 1957 (Mission Accomplished, 1958; better known as Mission to Kala)

Le Roi miraculé: Chronique des Essazam, 1958 (King Lazarus, 1960)

Remember Ruben, 1973 (English translation, 1980)

Perpétue et l’habitude du malheur, 1974 (Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness, 1978)

La Ruine presque cocasse d’un polichinelle: Remember Ruben deux, 1979 (Lament for an African Pol, 1985)Les Deux Mères de Guillaume Ismael Dzewatama: Futur Cammioneur, 1982 La Revanche de Guillaume Ismael Dzewatama, 1984 Histoire du fou, 1994 (The Story of the Madman, 2001)

Trop de soleil tue l’amour, 1999

Branle-bas en noir et blanc, 1999

Nonfiction:

Main basse sur le Cameroun: Autopsie d’une décolonisation, 1972

Dictionnaire de la negritude, 1989

La France contre l’Afrique: Retour au Cameroun, 1993

Mongo Beti parle avec Ambroise Kom, 2002 (interviews)

Biography

Mongo Beti (BEH-tee), one of the most important and prolific African authors, was born Alexandre Biyidi in a small village close to the major town of M’Balmayo, Cameroon. As a child, he worked on the cocoa plantations of the area and attended the Catholic missionary school in M’Balmayo. He finished his secondary studies in Yaounde in 1951. While in Yaounde, Beti became involved in the Cameroonian independence movement. His political commitment became even stronger at the Sorbonne, to which he received a scholarship in 1951. The stimulus of meeting other African writers and politically committed students (he joined several activist groups while in France) led to the publication of Beti’s first short story, “Sans haine et sans amour” (without love or hate), a tale of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, in the journal Presence Africaine under the pseudonym of Eza Boto.{$I[AN]9810001358}{$I[A]Beti, Mongo}{$S[A]Biyidi, Alexandre;Beti, Mongo}{$S[A]Boto, Eza;Beti, Mongo}{$I[geo]CAMEROON;Beti, Mongo}{$I[tim]1932;Beti, Mongo}

Under the same name, he published his first novel, Ville cruelle (cruel city), in 1954. This account of a country boy who encounters the economic injustices of the colonial system, suffers from a rather scattered plot but, more important, it reveals concerns shared by many African authors: the encounter of a traditional culture with a new and dominant one, the demoralizing aspects of the colonial African city, and the progressive alienation of those who try to live in this fragmented society.

Beti’s second novel, The Poor Christ of Bomba, was published in 1956, under the pseudonym he was to keep, Mongo Beti (child of the Beti). This novel, dealing with the unsuccessful attempts of Father Drumont, a French missionary, to Christianize the people of Bomba, employs the irony and humor that became typical of Beti’s later works. Seen through the eyes of Denis, a fifteen-year-old houseboy who is devoted to the priest, Drumont’s efforts to reform the people of Bomba are shown as futile and ridiculous. The traditional society triumphs over the attempted Western overlay.

This superiority of the traditional culture is shown even more clearly in Beti’s third and perhaps best novel, Mission to Kala. Medza, a young man who has gone to the French schools and failed to get his baccalauréat, is sent to retrieve a woman who has gone back to her village in the bush. While there he realizes that what he has learned in school is useless to him in that milieu: The villagers seem to know how to live with integrity, whereas Medza is now helplessly caught between two cultures, neither of which he has mastered.

Beti’s next novel, and the last one until 1973, appeared in 1958. King Lazarus deals with the conversion of the chief of the Essazam tribe to Christianity, a change that threatens to disrupt the tribe. This novel, however, does not depict the villagers favorably; they are interested in maintaining the status quo primarily out of selfish considerations, and the traditional life is shown to be far less than noble.

After the publication of King Lazarus, Beti moved back to Cameroon, where he was jailed briefly as a result of an altercation with a Greek merchant. He left Cameroon before its independence in 1960 and returned to France to live. His fictional literary output stopped, and he concerned himself with teaching and writing political articles. Only in 1973 did he present a new novel, Remember Ruben, which is important partly because of the relative dearth of francophone African literature at the time. The novel also introduced a new type of character: Instead of the man lost between two cultures, this protagonist, Mor-Zamba, is one who has found the possibility of return. This novel was closely followed by Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness, which concerns themes that Beti develops in his later novels: the corruption of officials (now Africans), the sufferings of the innocent, and the constant search for an identity in a fragmented culture. Beti died in 2001 at the age of sixty-nine.

Uneven though Beti’s work is, his was an important contribution to world literature. His themes were shared with other contemporary African authors, but this manner and style, marked by ironic detachment and large doses of humor, allowed him to transcend what he called “the literature of circumstance.”

BibliographyArnold, Stephen H., ed. Critical Perspectives on Mongo Beti. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1998. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Brench, A. C. The Novelists’ Inheritance in French Africa: Writers from Senegal to Cameroon. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. Examines the author’s worldview in some depth.Dramé, Kandioura. The Novel as Transformation Myth: A Study of the Novels of Mongo Beti and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Syracuse, N.Y.: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1990. A critical study of two important African authors. Includes bibliographical references.Moore, Gerald. “Mongo Beti: The Voice of the Rebel.” In Seven African Writers. Rev. ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. Although dated, the work offers an excellent introduction to Beti’s work and its importance in the tumultuous postindependence period in West Africa.Palmer, Eustace. The Growth of the African Novel. Exeter, N.H.: Heinemann, 1979. Gives the most complete overview of Beti’s early and middle work.Smith, Robert P., Jr. “Mongo Beti: The Novelist Looks at Independence and the Status of the African Woman.” CLA Journal 19, no. 3 (March, 1976):. 301-311. This review of Perpétue et l’habitude du malheur calls it an important novel that addresses “the victimization of the modern African woman in today’s independent Africa.”
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