The new edition of Cruel City by Mongo Beti is a rare kind of book. It brings together, in English translation, the first published (1954) novel by Cameroonian author Alexandre Biyidi Awala (1932-2001), written under another pseudonym, Eza Boto, and his 1955 written essay “Romancing Africa”, which represents the first ever published (francophone) African critique of the contemporary literary portrayal of Africa by European or African writers. His later work became well known under his pseudonym Mongo Beti. Each part of this combined edition makes for a fascinating read, taken in their historical context as well as for its relevance in current debates on “how to write about Africa?”. Reading “Romancing Africa” in conjunction with the novel Cruel City will immediately raise interesting questions as regards Beti’s application of his ideas and perspectives on a different kind of African literature. The fundamental critique does not appear to have lost any of its relevance in fifty years, when compared to Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay “How to write about Africa” that won the Caine Prize for African Writing (2002).The following quote will give you a taste of Beti’s position:
“… what will distinguish the African novelists” contends Beti,“is less their ethnic origin than their distinctive temperaments, their personalities. Indeed, it would seem, in theory at least, that only White writers would explore the folkloristic side of Black Africa, whereas Black writers, more aware of their native continent’s serious problems, would use folklore only as a way of underscoring Africa’s deeper reality…” Yet, Beti recognizes that many contemporary francophone African writers also write folkloric novels (and he names several)… who may find themselves in a conundrum of either write in the way preferred by the reader and get published or write what is needed and risk not being published.
Cruel City tells the story of Banda, a young man torn between village and city, between dreams and doubts in his ability to achieve his ambition to make money and fulfill his ailing mother’s greatest wish: to marry a girl of her liking and settle down. When the novel opens he has left the village for the near-by city, Tanga, to sell his cacao bean harvest to the traders in town. His rebel mentality, combined with his naïveté as regards a complex urban reality, is vividly portrayed as he lives through the eventful two-day visit. His own musings that run like a commentary alongside the circumstances he finds himself in are couched in a descriptive account, context explanation and critique by an omniscient narrator. At one point, Beti hints at the timeframe the novel is set: “193…” which is important for the context of the events. For example, the French administration, who Africans know to stay away from, had recently decided to involve themselves in the cacao trade by introducing a “quality control” inspection. Some fifty percent of the growers find their harvest categorized to be of poor quality and the bags “disappear” in a fire. Banda is confronted by one of the controllers and his attitude gets him into trouble. The narrator, through other voices in the market, warns his hero, but the youth’s mind has a habit of “thinking about something else besides what he was doing…” By the end of the first day, Banda has lost his harvest, his money and much of his confidence. But his adventures are not over yet. On the contrary!
There are many passages where we can clearly identify the voice of the narrator (Beti). The city in the title, refers primarily to Tanga, a fictional name in an unnamed country, most likely what since Independence has become Cameroon. Tanga is more than backdrop to Banda’s story, it has a life on its own that is vividly portrayed throughout the novel. It is intended, without doubt, as a metaphor for an evolving modern African society that stands in contrast the rural traditional way of life. Tanga is divided by a river with the South representing the affluent, European side run by the French colonial rulers, assisted by local regional guards and where the Africans come to work. The North, by contrast, consists of a sprawling network of shacks and huts, connected by alleyways and forest paths: it is “a true child of Africa”. There is a constant movement between the two sides: during the day the South is full of life and action and in the evenings the South empties and life moves to the northern townships and villages in the forest beyond. “Every night, it celebrated the return of these prodigal children. It seemed as if North Tanga needed to quench their thirst for something they might soon lose forever: joy, naked and real, happiness.”
Banda is also a symbol of the young Africans of the time, who dream of city life, but remain rooted in the village of their ancestors. Despite Banda’s sometimes confused and rambling inner monologues, the resulting constant inner struggle is very realistically developed. Irrespective of the story’s potential resonance today, however, it remains an important document for its time and an admirable achievement for a twenty-three year-old author’s debut novel. The current edition, published by Indiana University Press, makes both important texts available for the first time in English in the translation of and with an introduction by Pim Higginson. Even without the comparison to the French original, the reader can gauge the challenges the translator must have faced with this text.