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Biography of Mongo BETI

Cameroon > Literature : Mongo BETI

Mongo BETI
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Born on 30/06/1932 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Mongo Beti. born June 30,1932) was one of the great Francophone novelists from Africa. His works satirize the French colonial world and dramatize the dilemmas of the quasi-Westernized African in acrid, sometimes ribald language and outrageous scenes.

Mongo Beti was born Alexandre Biyidi on June 30, 1932, in M'balmayo, a small village of the Beti people about 30 miles south of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. At 19 he received the baccalaureate from the lycée at Yaoundé, and in 1951 he went to France on a scholarship to take advanced studies in literature, first at Aix-en-Provence and then at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1966 he received the agrégation, or teaching certificate, from the University of Paris.

While a student at Aix he wrote his first (now selfrepudiated) novel, Ville Cruelle (Cruel City), published in 1954 under the nom de plume Eza Boto. Considered a weak novel, it demonstrates strength in its melodramatic but often compelling naiveté, and it well expresses the confusion experienced by the rural Africans crowding into the new industrial lumber and pulping town of Tanga South "The Kingdom of logs."

Critics consider his first work published under the pseudonym Mongo Beti, 1956's The Poor Christ of Bomba, as one of the writer's finest. The novel is set in the 1930s in Cameroon, and features themes that World Literature Today writer Robert P. Smith Jr. described as "familiar Mongo Beti territory." These included "origins of fear, persecution, repression, betrayal, conspiracy, tribal conflict, war, revolt, corruption, and the violence and politics of power in post-colonial African republics," Smith noted. The work centers on a French missionary, Father Drumont, who visits villagers and attempts to convert them from their indigenous religion to Christianity. He also strives to keep them, at the same time, from adopting Western-style materialistic values that he has witnessed elsewhere among the newly converted. Drumont is saddened to learn that the villagers only agreed to convert because they hoped it would bring them prosperity. He is further devastated when he finds that the "sixa," a missionary house for young African women who live there to learn traditional "wifely" ways, has become a den of venereal disease.

Twice Won Literary Honors

Beti's second novel, Mission Accomplished, took the Sainte-Beuve prize of the French Academy around the time of its 1957 publication. Its protagonist is Jean-Marie Medza, who fails his exams at a French secondary school, and returns home. His family sends him to a distant village, Kala, to bring back the runaway wife of a relative. The Kala villagers treat Medza as a brilliant, distinguished guest, and shower him with presents. He even takes a wife, but the longer he remains in the remote, unsophisticated community, the more he realizes how little he knows about life. Beti garnered further literary acclaim and another Sainte-Beuve prize for his next work, King Lazarus. Its plot centers around a polygamous tribal chief who heeds a priest's urging to convert and divest himself of his many wives. The chief keeps just one, and turns the others out; irate, they complain to authorities, and a tribunal is held in which each side presents its case.

Beti lived a politically committed life outside of his fiction as well. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he had ties to the Union des Peuples Camerounais (UPC), a Marxist group in Cameroon. The country achieved independence from France in 1960, but Beti was critical of the new government in the capital city of Yaoundé. He penned articles for the journals Tumultueux Cameroun and Revue camerounaise, but living in his native land became dangerous because of his political opinions and connections to the UPC. He moved to France in the early 1960s, taking a job as a teacher of classical Greek, Latin, and French literature in Rouen, and did not write fiction for the next ten years.

Novels Critical of Post-Colonial Politics

An essay titled "The Plundering of Cameroon," published in 1972, revived Beti's status in Cameroon as an opinion-maker. Some of it discussed the final, failed UPC rebellion, whose leader was publicly executed in 1970. The work also gained some notoriety in France, where it was banned and seized because of its criticism of Cameroonian politics. Like other African nations in the years following independence, the country had become a one-party state by then.

The attention from "The Plundering of Cameroon" helped spark Beti's creativity, and he returned to writing novels again. These portrayed life in Cameroon after independence, such as Remember Ruben from 1973, which follows the story of orphaned Mor-Zamba, who is adopted by a village. When he grows into adulthood and wants to marry the daughter of the community's most esteemed family, he is forcibly sent away to a labor camp. Eighteen years later, he is reunited with his best friend from childhood, and learns the reasons for his internal exile. In a 1979 sequel, Lament for an African Pol, Mor-Zamba becomes a political opposition leader named Ruben Um Nyobe.

Beti began a political journal with his wife, Odile Tobner, Peuples noirs, peuples africains ("Black People, African People"), and returned to Cameroon in the early 1990s. He owned a book store there and continued to write polemical tracts and novels. His later works include Trop de soleil tue l'amour: Roman ("Too Much Sun Kills the Love"), which appeared in French in 1999. Its plot borrows some elements from the African detective genre in its story of Zamakwe, a political journalist and jazz fan. The theft of his extensive music collection and the mysterious kidnapping of his girlfriend set in motion a chain of events that bring him to a militia group and its leader. Writing in World Literature Today, the critic Smith observed that the novel followed certain themes found in Beti's work. He "criticizes repressive forces, external as well as internal, which keep his fellow Africans in an unbearable state of subordination," Smith wrote, and the critic concluded that the novel "retains much of Beti's powerful reasoning, sometimes deadly serious and sometimes familiarly humorous. His storytelling technique remains vibrant and captivating."

Returned to Homeland

Zamakwe's story was continued in Branle-bas en noir et blanc: Roman ("Commotion in Black and White"), which appeared in 2000. Here, Zamakwe's friend Eddie dreams of a career as a detective, but all mock his ambitions, reminding him that solving crimes in a society where the police force is so corrupt is an impossible dream. The plot centers around Eddie's search for the missing Zamakwe. Another reviewer for World Literature Today, Marco D. Roman, observed that the novel "holds up a mirror to African society in order to wake it into a realization of the imposed images put upon it by its own corrupt government as well as by those Western institutions that force Africans to view themselves as unable."

Beti died in Douala, Cameroon on October 8, 2001, from renal complications. He was survived by his wife and three children. He had been invited to read excerpts from his books at a Harvard University Bookstore event on October 21st, along with Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat and Olive Senior, the Jamaican writer. Instead, organizers decided to make the reading a memorial tribute to Beti. "He was such an important figure in the development of African literature in French," a scholar at Harvard University's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute of Afro-American Research, Andrew Horn, told writer Tanu T. Henry. "When his novels first came out they came as a shock to many in Europe and as gratification to many in Africa."


Twice awarded the French Academy's Sainte-Beuve Prize, for Mission Accomplished and King Lazarus.

Last update : 04/23/2010

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