Mongo Beti was born Alexandre Biyidi on 30 June 1932 in the village of Akometam, thirty-seven miles south of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, to Oscar Awala and Régine Alomo, both of them cacao farmers. He boarded with a family in M'balmayo, seven miles from Akometam, while attending a Catholic mission school from 1939 to 1943; public schools were reserved for the children of members of the colonial administration. The school had been conceived as a training ground for interpreters in the service of the occupiers, and the Catholic teachers had proven methods of teaching the French language--the key to entry into the colonial administrative system. Biyidi learned nothing except French during his primary schooling; instruction in arithmetic, geography, and history were virtually nonexistent.
At the conclusion of his primary schooling Biyidi was admitted to the sixth level in the pre-seminary in Efok and then to the fifth level in the minor seminary at Akono, but he was dismissed from the latter institution after a few months because he was not considered priestly material: though he was adept in French and Latin, he showed obvious signs of boredom in Church history and was loath to memorize the catechism. A secondary school, the Classic and Modern College, had been established in Yaoundé to educate the children of colonial administrators; and thanks to the liberal environment that followed World War II, the institution, which later became the Lycée Leclerc, had opened its doors to some African children. With a strong competence in Latin, Biyidi scored high on the entrance examination in 1946. He completed his secondary studies in 1951.
As a student in Yaoundé at the birth of the Union of Populations of Cameroon (UPC), which initiated the country's struggle for liberation, Biyidi was awakened to militancy quite early. He frequented the meetings organized by the charismatic nationalist leader Ruben Um Nyobé. His experiences at the Catholic school that had served only Africans and his subsequent studies at an institution that was originally set aside for "little whites" gave him an understanding of the differences between the philosophies that shaped the education of Africans and Europeans. In an interview with Ambroise Kom he said of the Catholic school:
Its core foundation had a certain conception of the Black and his role in colonial society. He was an inferior who was supposed to fulfill subaltern functions. And to do that, a certain baggage was needed that had nothing to do with the goals of education in France where the educational system aimed at forming a certain type of man and giving the child the critical sense that frees him from preconceptions and superstitions.
In 1951 Biyidi enrolled in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Aix-en-Provence. As a result of the birth of the Négritude movement in France in the 1930s, Paris had become the literary capital of the French colonies of Africa. Without necessarily subscribing to the Négritude platform, Biyidi aligned himself with the African literary environment in France and, in particular, with Alioune Diop, the founder in 1947 of the publishing house Présence Africaine and the journal of the same name. In 1953 Biyidi published his first short story, "Sans haine et sans amour" (Without Hate and without Love) in Présence Africaine under the pseudonym Eza Boto. The story takes place in an African colony and is constructed as a thriller. Momoto and several accomplices have assaulted a white driver at the wheel of his car, and the Home Guard is searching for them. Momoto considers himself the enforcer of justice for people of dark complexion because "throughout the entire world" people of light complexion have all the advantages. Momoto dreams of exterminating all whites; but "if he hated Whites, he especially despised their black friends who, in his eyes, were cowards, traitors, men whose ancestors wouldn't recognize themselves if they came back to life." "Sans haine et sans amour" reveals the strong historical and racial consciousness and the protest against injustice that subsequently marked the writings of Mongo Beti.
In 1954, under the imprint Éditions africaines, Présence Africaine published Biyidi's first novel, Ville cruelle (Cruel City), under the Boto pseudonym. The first French-language novel ever written by a Cameroonian, Ville cruelle has become a classic of African literature. Banda works the cacao farm he inherited from his father so that he can pay the bride price demanded by his prospective in-laws and get married to please his bedridden mother. He tries to sell his product in the nearby city of Tanga; but the dishonest Greek businessmen, under the pretext that his cacao is not sufficiently dry, pretend to throw it into the fire. In fact, they are stealing it.
Ville cruelle poses a serious challenge to Europe's "civilizing mission." The peasants are attracted to the cities, only to be pushed to the sidelines. Tanga, the cruel city, is divided into the Tanga of the blacks and the administrative and commercial Tanga controlled by the Greeks. Whites and blacks rub shoulders but barely communicate with each other. Furthermore, the blacks' gods were invalidated by the white missionaries, who also were in quest of money. As in "Sans haine et sans amour," Biyidi denounces both the colonizers' mercantilism and the apathy of the blacks who are incapable of raising an effective rebellion against the occupiers.
These two works are the only ones for which Biyidi used the Eza Boto pseudonym. The publication of Ville cruelle had disappointed him: Présence Africaine had shown little professionalism in the production and marketing of the work, and he was dissatisfied with the royalties he received. He therefore submitted his next book to another Paris publisher, Laffont. He also adopted a new pseudonym, Mongo Beti, which he used for the rest of his life.
In Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; translated as The Poor Christ of Bomba, 1971) Mongo Beti brings to the fore the anticlericalism that was implicit in Ville cruelle. Using parody, humor, and caricature, he reveals the clergy's collusion with the colonial power. The narrator of the novel is Denis, a naive cook and choirboy who records the events in his journal. The Reverend Father Superior Drumont, a fiery, headstrong zealot who compares himself to Jesus Christ and is "deaf to everything that is said to him, doing everything according to his own ideas," is responsible for evangelization among the Tala. He meets strong resistance from his flock and therefore decides to punish them by refusing "to set foot there for three whole years." He believes that after being shut off from the Good Word for that length of time, they will welcome him back in triumph. The novel recounts his return, which shows that relations between Drumont and the Tala are based on an irremediable misunderstanding. For Drumont, Tala land is "Satan's realm," a Sodom and Gomorrah that he intends to save. But the Tala are proud of their gods and their culture and expect something else from Drumont: "The first of us who ran to religion, to your religion, came to it as a sort of . . . revelation . . . a school where they would learn your secret, the secret of your power, of your aeroplanes and railways . . . the secret of your mystery. Instead of that, you began talking to them of God, of the soul, of eternal life, and so forth. Do you really suppose they didn't know those things already, long before you came?" As Drumont deteriorates, he begins to behave like a vulgar Greek businessman or any other colonizer in the area. He scorns the local culture, does not speak its language, and has no tolerance for African music or dance. He does not, however, share the cynicism of Vidal, the administrator of the colony, who asks him about the possibility of "a Christianity . . . well, perhaps, in which polygamy is permitted . . . and where sexual chastity is not regarded as the chief of all virtues?" But he does not object to Vidal's protection, arranges to be welcomed to the mission schools by a band playing La Marseillaise, and thinks, like Vidal, that forced labor can lead the Tala to God. The missionary finally admits defeat--"For twenty years I've known nothing in reality"--and returns to France. Le pauvre Christ de Bomba caused a scandal, and the archbishop of Yaoundé, René Graffin, prevented its distribution in Cameroon. Laffont refused to promote the work, and Mongo Beti changed publishers again for his next novel.
In Mission terminée (1957; translated as Mission to Kala, 1957), which is set in the 1950s, Jean-Marie Medza returns to his village after failing the baccalaureate examination at a French secondary school. Because of his "impressive" cultural attainments, he is chosen by his clan to go to the village of Kala and bring back Niam, a runaway bride. In Kala, Medza is lionized by the village leaders, who want him to share with them the wisdom he acquired from his Western education, and finds himself engaged to Edima, the chief's fifteen-year-old daughter; he also falls in with a band of young good-for-nothings who draw him into their world of freewheeling sex, drinking, scorn for traditional order, and laziness. Mezda does reconcile Niam with his own clan, but his failure in the examination and his escapades in Kala poison his relationship with his father. The father is a caricature of the African man who dreams of his son's total appropriation of Western values, even if he does not comprehend their meaning. The novel closes by highlighting the conflictual encounter between Africa and the West: "the tragedy which our nation is suffering today is that of a man left to his own devices in a world which does not belong to him, which he has not made and does not understand. It is the tragedy of a man bereft of any intellectual compass, a man walking blindly through the dark in some hostile city like New York. Who will tell him that he can only cross Fifth Avenue by pedestrian crossings, or teach him how to interpret the traffic signs?"
Le roi miraculé: Chronique des Essazam (1958, The Miraculous King: Chronicle of Essazem; translated as King Lazarus, 1960) invites the reader to reflect on the contact between African and European cultures. The elderly Essomba Mendouga, chief of the Essazam clan, falls ill and appears near death. His Catholic aunt Yosifa has him baptized to save his soul, but he recovers. Because he has been baptized, Father Le Guen enjoins him to keep only one of the twenty-nine wives in his harem and repudiate the others. Essomba chooses his last and youngest wife, unleashing the fury of Makrita, the first wife, who marshals her clan's youth to set off a general riot. Peace is reestablished only when the missionary is removed at the demand of the colonial administration and the rights of all the wives are restored.
The plot allows Mongo Beti once again to accuse the Catholic Church and the colonial administration of intruding into the lives of Africans. But Africans do not escape criticism for letting themselves be manipulated by the foreign occupiers. In addition, the elders are shown to be locked into outdated traditions. Aside from the women who immerse themselves in work in the fields, and a few rare youths, such as the intellectual Bitama, who have their eyes slightly opened, Africans are depicted as irresponsible and not disposed to fight for their freedom.
Le roi miraculé ended the first phase of Mongo Beti's literary career; he fell silent for the next fourteen years. In 1958 he became an adjunct professor of classical letters at Lycée de Rambouillet in Rambouillet. The following year he received the Certificat d'Aptitude des Professeurs de l'Enseignement Secondaire and was named a professor at Lyceé de Henri Avril in Lamballe. In 1966, having received a B.A. with honors from the Sorbonne and having passed the Agrégation de Lettres Classiques, he was appointed to a professorship at the Lycée Corneille in Rouen.
Mongo Beti returned to literature with a political pamphlet. In August 1970 Ernest Ouandié, a leader of the Union des Populations du Cameroun, the party that had fought for the country's independence, was arrested for leading a rebellion against the dictatorship of Cameroon president Ahmadou Ahidjo. He was subjected to a parody of a trial and executed in 1971. Albert Ndongmo, the bishop of Nkongsamba, was accused of complicity with the rebellion and sentenced to life in prison. Outraged by the arbitrariness of Ahidjo's regime and by the indifference of international opinion, Mongo Beti wrote Main basse sur le Cameroun: Autopsie d'une décolonisation (1972, The Plundering of Cameroon: Autopsy of a Decolonization) to lift the curtain hiding the face of French neocolonialism in Cameroon. The incendiary work was immediately banned by France's minister of the interior, Raymond Marcellin. Not until 1976, after a lengthy judicial procedure, did Mongo Beti and the publisher, François Maspero, obtain the cancellation of the order. Meanwhile, the text had been republished in 1974 by Éditions Québécoises in Montreal, and copies had been smuggled into France.
Mongo Beti's next works--the trilogy Remember Ruben (1974; translated as Remember Ruben, 1980), Perpétue et l'habitude du malheur (1974; translated as Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness, 1978), and La ruine presque cocasse d'un polichinelle: Remember Ruben 2 (1979, The Nearly Comical Ruin of a Puppet: Remember Ruben 2; translated as Lament for an African Pol, 1985)--are essentially fictionalized versions of Main basse sur le Cameroun. Remember Ruben begins in 1944. Mor Zamba is released from a French colonial prison and returns to Fort-Nègre and Kola-Kola, where Ruben Um Nyobé is spreading the spirit of revolt. After Um Nyobé's assassination in 1958, Mor Zamba and his half brother Abéna continue the war of liberation. The country achieves independence; but the condition of the people does not improve under the dictatorial regime of Baba Toura le Bituré, a thinly disguised version of Ahidjo. Wendelin Essola, a Rubenist, is imprisoned in one of Baba Toura's concentration camps. When he abjures his beliefs at the end of the novel in exchange for his freedom and returns to his village, he finds that his sister, Perpétue, has died as a result of her mistreatment by Edouard, to whom she had been married by force. Perpétue et l'habitude du malheur is a detective story in which Essola seeks to discover the circumstances of his sister's death. This device permits Mongo Beti to lay bare the disfunctions of Cameroonian society. Perpétue, whose weakness is symbolic of the African condition, is the victim of a greedy and corrupt world. Essola's abjuration, synonymous with treason, marks the failure of the revolutionary struggle. Mor Zamba and Abéna reappear in La ruine presque cocasse d'un polichinelle. Because the country is in the hands of a puppet leader, the resistance continues. Mor Zamba, Abéna, and their Rubenist acolytes free the village of Ekoumdoum with the support of the women and their leader, Ngwane Eligui the Younger. The Catholic religion is criticized through the figure of Father Van den Rietter, who symbolizes the last bastion of white power.
La ruine presque cocasse d'un polichinelle appeared in installments from March/April 1978 to March/April 1979 in Peuples noirs--Peuples africains (Black Peoples--African Peoples), a journal Mongo Beti established in 1978, before its publication in book form by Éditions des Peuples noirs, a firm also founded by Mongo Beti. Mongo Beti and his wife, Odile Lebossé, alias Odile Tobner, were married on 31 August 1963 and had three children; they headed Peuples noirs--Peuples africains until 1991, publishing a total of around sixty issues.
Mongo Beti defined his aesthetics in articles that he published in the September/October issue. African writers, he declares, must produce a literature in which blacks are no longer objects but the subjects of reflection on themselves. African literature must be a literature for the African revolution; it must focus on the history of colonization, with its succession of tragedies. It is useless to follow the example of contemporary Europe: "Writing in Europe is no longer anything but the pretext of sophisticated inutility, of the gratuitous scabrous, whereas with us, it can bring down tyrants, save children from massacres, grab a race out of millenary slavery, in a word, serve. Yes, for us, writing can serve something, thus must serve something." African literature must be essentially partisan; it must be a literature of refusal, because Africans must cease being domestic servants, protégés, or evangelists for anyone else.
In parallel with his editorial activities Mongo Beti wrote Les deux mères de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama, futur camionneur (1982, The Two Mothers of Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama, Future Truck Driver) and its sequel, La revanche de Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama (1984, The Revenge of Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama). While the ostensible protagonist is young Guillaume Ismaël Dzewatama, the works revolve around the double life of his father, Jean-François, who is simultaneously an opponent and an ally of the postcolonial dictatorship. In the second novel Jean-François, whose career is the example par excellence of the ideological straying of an African intellectual, is imprisoned following an attempted coup d'état. Mongo Beti uses the novel to present a critique of the actors and sociopolitical structures of contemporary Africa: among the topics he scrutinizes are the Senegalese poet, politician, and cultural theorist Léopold Sédar Senghor; Franco-African cooperation; and the driftings of postcolonial powers. The two works reprise, in a barely novelized form, subjects Mongo Beti discussed in articles in Peuples noirs--Peuples africains.
The same can be said of Lettre ouverte aux Camerounais; ou, La deuxième mort de Ruben Um Nyobé (1986, Open Letter to the Cameroonians; or, The Second Death of Ruben Um Nyobé), a work that Mongo Beti himself recognized as unclassifiable: "it's a book about Cameroon, and Cameroon's fate doesn't belong to any category, the more so because its present situation has no precedent," he says in the introduction. The text deals with the traps that he believed had been laid by the regime of Paul Biya, who had succeeded Ahidjo as president in 1982, to try to cause the failure of Peuples noirs--Peuples africains. Borrowing from the style of Main basse sur le Cameroun, Mongo Beti denounces the government's totalitarian ways and the networks in Yaoundé that support the regime. He returns to the Ndongmo affair, exposing "the French connection" and the pale complexion of the power that actually rules Cameroon.
The composition of Dictionnaire de la négritude (1989, Dictionary of Negritude) in collaboration with Tobner temporarily took Mongo Beti away from sociopolitical analyses. The project was ambitious because it proposed to reread the history and culture of the black world from the era of the slave trade to the present. It has little to do with the Négritude movement initiated by Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Léon Damas in the 1930s. Négritude is defined as "the image that the Black constructs of himself by way of reply to the image that has been drawn up of him, without him thus against him, in the minds of people of light skin--an image of himself endlessly reconquered, rehabilitated on a daily basis against the defilements and preconceptions of slavery, colonial and neocolonial domination." The word, according to the authors, "opens an entire ideological field that is also a battle field for vanquisher and vanquished, pride and humiliation." People, concepts, and places that are revisited and reinterpreted include Shaka Zulu, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Nat Turner, Martin Luther King, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Joe Louis, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, slavery, colonization, Pan-Africanism, apartheid, the Ku Klux Klan, jazz, Bandoeng, Berlin, Ghana, Haiti, and Sharpeville.
In 1991, after more than forty years of exile and thirty-two years of uninterrupted absence, Mongo Beti visited Cameroon. His La France contre l'Afrique: Retour au Cameroun (1993, France against Africa: Return to Cameroon) is a "cahier d'un retour au pays natal" (notebook of a return to the native land). Starting with the sights he saw, the work approaches the most diverse domains of Cameroonian life. It is part anthropology, part sociology, part political science, and part economics; among the topics covered are science, education, and international relations. Mongo Beti analyzes the mechanisms that put Cameroon and Africa at an impasse. He stigmatizes the predatory central state and criticizes the administrations that paralyze the continent with corruption, fraud, organized pillage, war, oppositions and tribal riots that are artificially fomented by the authorities, and the impunity of the leaders. As in Main basse sur le Cameroun he highlights France's responsibility for the institutionalized violence and the plundering of natural resources of its former colonies.
In 1994 Mongo Beti retired from teaching, moved back to Cameroon, opened the Librairie des Peuples Noirs (Black Peoples' Bookstore) in Yaoundé, and established plantations for produce, forestry, and cattle raising in his home village of Akometam. Also that year he published L'histoire du fou (translated as The Story of the Madman, 2001). The madman of the title scarcely occupies the first chapter of the work, which is "the story of his father and, to be exact, the story of a people who dreamed much and suffered even more." It is a fable, recounted in a long flashback, about a country that acquired a semblance of independence in 1960 through tumult, discord, and bloodshed. Since then the country has lived under occupation, the populace delivered to the permanent inquisition of an unimaginative dictator who has equipped himself with an omnipresent and anarchical police force and a divided army provided with unlimited advantages. The plot centers on an altercation between villagers and a group of soldiers searching for easy pleasures in the village of the illiterate, polygamous patriarch Zoaételeu, who is the father of many children and the focal point of various intrigues of which he has no understanding. L'histoire du fou is the story of the disjointed life that is lived under the neocolonial regimes of the dictator madmen of sub-Saharan Africa. For Mongo Beti these regimes, like the hydrocephalic quintuplets born in the home of Zoaételeu, are nonviable.
In Yaoundé, Mongo Beti became an occasional actor but most of all an alert observer of the country's sociopolitical and cultural life. Over the course of ten years he contributed more than a hundred columns to fifteen Cameroonian newspapers. In so doing he fulfilled the dream of a career as a journalist that he had abandoned when he realized that an African journalist would have no future in the France of his time. These pieces, on a wide variety of subjects, were collected in 2005 by Philippe Bissek under the title Mongo Beti à Yaoundé, 1991-2001.
One of the highlights of Mongo Beti's presence in the local newspapers was the serializion of "Les exilés sont de retour" (The Exiles Have Returned) in the biweekly Le Messager from May to October 1998. Published in book form in 1999 as Trop de soleil tue l'amour (Too Much Sun Kills Love), the novel is the first part of a trilogy that remained unfinished because the author died before finishing the third volume.
Trop de soleil tue l'amour is set in an underdeveloped African country that is suffering social, ethnic, and political convulsions and is governed by a mafia that is in the service of foreign interests. Insecurity is part of daily life; death squads are everywhere; the magistrates are corrupt. The police do not protect the citizens but threaten them. Furthermore, the police do not keep records and never conduct investigations for fear of accidentally questioning a "person of importance," a dignitary of the regime. Trop de soleil tue l'amour is a work with multiple plots: the assassination of Reverend Maurice Mzilikasi, an intellectual who is a potential Nobel laureate; the sudden, mysterious death of the wife of the president of the country; and the cadaver of a stranger that is found in the apartment of the protagonist, Zam; and the attempts on Zam's own life are some of the many enigmas littering Mongo Beti's novel that are never cleared up. The escapades of Bébète, Zam's occasional companion, constitute a detective story in themselves. The novel is written in the language of the "man in the street," offering a veritable anthology of Africanisms.
Characters from Trop de soleil tue l'amour who reappear in the sequel, Branle-bas en noir et blanc (1999, Commotion in Black and White), include Zam; Eddie, an elusive lawyer; and George, a French adventurer who is always chasing after the enigmatic Bébète. Mongo Beti again sketches a scouring portrait of contemporary Cameroonian society, unveiling the mechanisms--cupidity, corruption, worldliness, secret leadership, and so on--that explain the country's drifting and that are the responsibility of Africans as much as of Europeans. Mongo Beti remains a virtuoso of the French language but continues to allow his characters to express themselves in the local patois. Zam, like his creator, is a jazz fan, and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Lee Morgan, Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, and Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers are mentioned in the novel. Mongo Beti writes, "jazz will always be the music of exiles or their kind, the pariahs of the entire world." Mongo Beti died of kidney failure on 7 October 2001.
In the memorial volume Remember Mongo Beti (2003) the author appears as a man and a writer with many faces that are difficult to grasp. For his colleague Tierno Monenembo he was "the lone wolf . . . the sane part of our sick brain." For Maryse Condé he is the "very symbol of the courageous writer who refuses to listen to the sirens of power so that he can lead an avenging struggle in total freedom and total solitude." Gustave Massiah declares that "Beti is one of the greatest resisters in modern Africa." Abel Eyinga thinks of him as "a free man" who lived his life standing tall and making his own choices. Christophe Chomant, a former pupil, calls him "a living hero, a sort of African 'Che Guevara.'" Like Guevara, Mongo Beti was a revolutionary, but with his pen as his only weapon; like Guevara, too, he has become part of a mythology that generations of scholars will be called upon to explore.
From: Kom, Ambroise. "Mongo Beti." Contemporary African Writers, edited by Tanure Ojaide, Gale, 2011.