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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Story of the Madman

Mongo Beti

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To purchase The Story of the Madman

Title: The Story of the Madman
Author: Mongo Beti
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 187 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Story of the Madman - US
The Story of the Madman - UK
The Story of the Madman - Canada
L'histoire du fou - Canada
L'histoire du fou - France
  • French title: L'histoire du fou
  • Translated by Elizabeth Darnel
  • With an Afterword by Patricia-Pia Célérier

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly powerful, but satire of the sort that's become too familiar for this kind of story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Lit. Today . Fall/1994 Robert P. Smith, Jr.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Beti's reasoning, sometimes dead serious and sometimes familiarly humorous, is powerful, and his style, reminiscent of Balzac with its detailed descriptions and colorful images, and of Proust with its interminable sentences, remains superb. Here he continues to be a teller of tales in the African oral tradition, and satire and irony remain in evidence. (...) The novel is an open window into the psyche of the African people, weighed down by centuries of tribal strife, scarred by years of foreign invasions, enslaved by colonial and neocolonial repression, and crushed by current military dictatorships." - Robert P. Smith, Jr., World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Story of the Madman begins with a particular sad and sorry madman, only around thirty years of age, reduced to running around naked; the rest of the novel recounts the story of how he -- and the society he is part of -- came to this. Indeed, this is a novel describing the larger madness that has befallen this country and its citizens -- and, especially, the many who come to power and abuse that power, with horrible consequences for the population.
       The novel is set in an African nation that attained its independence on 1 January, 1960 -- as did Beti's native (French) Cameroon (the southern, British colony only became independent the following year). Independence, however, was little more than another colonial trick, the installation of "an accommodating dictator" leading to:

the start of an endless period of tears and suffering that continues still
       Set largely in the 1980s, the story focusses on seventy-year-old Zoaételeu, and two of his many, many sons, the favored Narcisse and Zoaétoa. Narcisse is not quite a black sheep, but he prefers city life to that at the huge family compound. He does let himself get married off, according to his father's wishes, to an extremely ugly woman, but also has a girlfriend whom he uses to get close to power (while also trying his best to remain out of sight).
       As happened three decades earlier, Zoaételeu is arrested for no good reason. The new regime figures it can dispose of him in a show trial (the main charge against him being that he has practiced sorcery), with his death sentence already a foregone conclusion. But things don't work out quite that way -- for one, because regimes are short-lived in this country, with an apparently endless loop of one vicious kleptocracy succeeding the next.
     As usual, what was expected did not occur. Or rather, events unfolded in a way that surprised everyone. And yet the turmoil in the other African countries previously colonized by the former colonial power should have done away with any remaining illusions. But tragedies only happen to other people, as everyone knows.
       Beti presents this unpredictability -- not far removed from irrationality -- nicely. And, yes, it's all madness:
     It is also true that the spiral of fury and madness triggered by independence created an inhuman climate that precious few were able to resist. The population of madmen that haunts the streets of our cities and who all have tragic stories similar to this one bears witness to that fact.
       There are some colorful characters -- including the strong-willed patriarch Zoaételeu, who tries to hold onto his old ways and expectations (making for amusing exchanges when he deals with the modern authorities), or the two lawyers that spar at the trial, one in way over his head, the other sprinkling Latin phrases into his speech -- and both fine comic scenes and some serious political and sociological commentary. Still, much of this sort of satire has become very familiar, and it can seem to be not much more than a variation on what is found in a great deal of the African fiction of the past few decades. Beti has a nice touch with some of this, but it is not tightly written enough to be a complete success.

       This volume includes an interview with Beti conducted by Patricia-Pia Célérier; both that and her Afterword are useful complementary material.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 May 2010

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The Story of the Madman: Mongo Beti: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Mongo Beti (actually: Alexandre Biyidi-Awala; 1932-2001) was born in Cameroon and spent much of his life in exile in France.

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