Published in 1968, this was Armah's first novel. It depicted corruption and societal breakdown in a newly independent African nation, seen through the eyes of a citizen disillusioned by the materialism and decay he encountered, who found himself struggling to maintain his integrity.
The novel was based on the experience of Ghanaians in the late 1950s and 1960s under the administration of Kwame Nkrumah. The nation's first leader after independence, he mismanaged the economy and was overthrown two years before the book's publication. The work's considered to be among the key novels that began to reflect criticism of newly established native African governments following the exhilaration of freedom from colonial rule.
Regrettably, I found the first two-thirds of the book to be plodding and often obscure, and the action uninteresting. It took 60 pages, one-third of the novel, to get the main character from a bus to an office to his home, through conversations with a bus driver, a relative, his wife and a teacher. Initially, there was little description of the characters' thoughts other than through dialogue. New characters were introduced abruptly, with little clue as to who they were; for example, the woman named Manaan in Chapter 6. Sixty pages into the book, a nameless, first-person narrator began speaking for half a chapter before dropping out.
Too many of these passages went something like this:
"Question bounces off unheeded as the naked man gets up off the bed, takes a pencil from the top of the bookcase near the bed and sticks it in to mark the page. He puts the book on the case and sits back down on the bed, pushing his back against the head and drawing up his knees."
And 40 pages later, this:
"The naked man stood up on the bed and tried to reach over to the door and take down a pair of trousers hanging on a nail behind it, but at his touch the door swung left and away from him, and he had to jump down and go round to get the trousers. He slipped them on over his naked body and took down a T-shirt from another nail."
Many of these passages called to mind the style of the French New Novelists: painstaking description of moment-by-moment action to create a certain atmosphere, combined with a deemphasis of character, background and plot. Maybe this style was considered suitable for conveying the atmosphere of powerlessness. Disliking the style, I found it tedious and hard to appreciate.
Closer toward the book's end, more of the main character's thoughts began to be gradually introduced. The last third of the novel, describing an important dinner at the main character's home with a corrupt representative of the regime and the fateful aftermath, was written in a more realistic way and told a more dramatic story, where plot and character came more sharply into focus. The ending seemed appropriate and was far from optimistic.
For me, the novel was most memorable for its descriptions of the indignities of the new country: enslaving admiration for those with material wealth, no matter how it was gained; the humiliation and envy of those who lacked it; a dead-end job and the virtual absence of hope or an opportunity to better oneself; corruption and the pressure to join in and trade integrity for scraps, for the sake of one's children. And the ultimate futility of it all, what the author called the "horrible cycle of the powerless."
The novel was also memorable for its variety of pungent images of filth, which served to communicate both the urban atmosphere and moral decay:
"Sounds arise and kill all smells as the bus pulls into the dormitory town. Past the big public lavatory the stench claws inward to the throat. Sometimes it is understandable that people spit so much, when all around decaying things push inward and mix all the body's juices with the taste of rot . . . . Hot smell of caked s--- split by afternoon's baking sun, now touched by still evaporating dew. The nostrils, incredibly, are joined in a way that is most horrifying direct to the throat itself and to the entrails right through to their end."
Although I found much of the book's style uninteresting until the last third, by the end the writer had managed to convey a strong sense of what life was like, physically and psychologically, under a corrupt regime.