#TBT An Ode To Author Extraordinaire, Mongo Beti
The Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, who died at the age of 69, must be counted as one of the foremost African writers of the independence generation. His biting satires of the colonial period still rank among the best African novels. He also acquired the status of an icon, as a brilliant political polemicist who never gave up on his radicalism.Born Alexandre Biyidi-Awala in Akometan near Mbalmayo, to the south of Yaounde, the capital of what was then the part of Cameroon ruled by the French on behalf of the League of Nations, he was suspended from his mission school at 14 for “insubordination”; he worked for a time on the family cocoa plantation before returning to studies to pass the baccalauréat. In 1951 he left for France, for further studies at the Sorbonne, and soon became caught up in Parisian African politics. There, he began to write tracts. “It was through the writing of tracts that I entered literature,” he once said.
In 1954, he wrote his first novel, Ville Cruelle, under the assumed name of Eza Boto, about the exploitation of the peasantry, but two years later, under another pseudonym, Mongo Beti, came Le Pauvre Christ De Bomba, which many feel was his masterpiece. Translated later into English as The Poor Christ Of Bomba, it is a humorous but devastating critique of the follies and brutalities of colonial officials, and also of the Catholic church. It received critical acclaim and placed him among the star authors of Présence Africaine, the Paris publishing house that did so much to promote African creative writing.
His next two books, the prize-winning Mission Terminée (1957) and Le Roi Miracule (1958), were in a similar vein. All three books were translated into English and many other languages, which gave Beti a lasting international reputation.
Cameroon, at the end of the 1950s, was not only about to receive independence, it was also wracked by the violent Marxist-leaning rebellion of the Union des Peuples Camerounais (UPC); dissenters were not in order, especially one whose pen was as sharp as that of Beti. Wanted in Cameroon for his UPC connections, he chose exile in Rouen as a teacher of literature at the Lycée Corneille, where he remained for the next 30 years. He also stopped writing for all the following decade.
His next novel, Main Basse Sur Le Cameroun (1971), perhaps sprang from frustration and rage at the final collapse of the UPC rebellion and the public execution of its last leader, Ernest Ouandie, in 1970. A devastating critique of the authoritarian regime in Cameroon, the book acquired added notoriety from having been banned and seized in France. The 1970s saw two of his most passionately political novels, Remember Ruben and Perpetua Et l’Habitude De Malheur, both published in 1974.
In 1978, he and his French wife, Odile Tobner, also a literature teacher, whom he had married in the late 50s, launched Peuples Noirs, Peuples Africains, a bimonthly review with heavy political bias. At that time, it was one of the rare organs that articulated some of the profound criticisms of French neo-colonial policies in Africa. The novels and the polemics continued. In 1986, Beti wrote an Open Letter To Cameroonians and, in 1993, a general critique of French African policy with La France Contre l’Afrique.
In the early 1990s, with the post-cold war wave of democracy sweeping Africa, he returned to Cameroon as the regime gradually liberalised, and opened a black peoples’ bookshop. He even attempted to stand for election in 1993 in his native Mbalmayo.
Read More: Obituary: Mongo Beti | Books | The Guardian