Imbolo Mbue’s ‘How Beautiful We Were’ Exposes the Human Cost of Capital

By Imbolo Mbue

A kind of moral claustrophobia hangs over the opening pages of Imbolo Mbue’s sweeping and quietly devastating second novel, “How Beautiful We Were.” In October of 1980, in the fictional African village of Kosawa, representatives of an American oil company called Pexton have come to meet with the locals, whose children are dying. Nearby, the company’s oil pipelines and drilling sites have left the fields fallow and the water poisoned. The residents of Kosawa want the company gone and the land restored to what it was before Pexton showed up, decades ago. The company’s representatives say they’re doing everything they can, though their audience knows it’s a lie — Pexton has the support of the village head as well as the country’s dictator and, with it, impunity. Nothing will be done. But just as the meeting concludes, Konga, the village madman, bursts in. He’s got another idea: Until they get what they want, the villagers should hold Pexton’s men as prisoners.

It’s a propulsive beginning, though one that feels at first as though it’s about to roam familiar ground — a tale of a casually sociopathic corporation and the people whose lives it steamrolls. By the end of the first chapter, I couldn’t help bracing for a long march toward one of two conclusions: the corporation’s inevitable victory, or its wildly unlikely but inspiring defeat.

[ This novel was one of our most anticipated books of March. See the full list. ]

I was wrong. What carries Mbue’s decades-spanning fable of power and corruption is something much less clear-cut, and what starts as a David-and-Goliath story slowly transforms into a nuanced exploration of self-interest, of what it means to want in the age of capitalism and colonialism — these machines of malicious, insatiable wanting.

Not long after the villagers of Kosawa kidnap Pexton’s representatives, a group of national soldiers show up asking questions about their whereabouts. It’s one of the narrative’s first — and least violent — confrontations between the state and the village, and an introduction to the myriad ways in which Kosawa’s residents must scheme in order to avoid the wrath of a government that would think nothing of wiping them out altogether. In the months and years that follow, the villagers try everything they can think of to get the oil company off their land. They meet with an American journalist, hoping that an article might change public (i.e., Western) sentiment in their favor; they travel to the capital to plead with the national government; they consider taking up arms.

In Kosawa, Mbue has created a place and a people alive with emotional range. There is no consensus among the villagers about what to do — whether to free their Pexton hostages after one falls severely ill; whether to lie to the soldiers; whether to take the oilmen’s money; whether to buy guns. The central moral and philosophical conflict of this novel boils down to one between those willing to trust Pexton to do what’s right, those who want to solicit the support of well-meaning American activists and those who see no difference between the two. “Someday, when you’re old, you’ll see that the ones who came to kill us and the ones who’ll run to save us are the same,” Konga says. “No matter their pretenses, they all arrive here believing they have the power to take from us or give to us whatever will satisfy their endless wants.”

The story unfolds in the alternating points of view of individual villagers — the most fully realized of whom is Thula, a young girl who eventually becomes a guide for Kosawa’s resistance movement — and a chorus of children. At their best, the choral chapters have an impact similar to the collective voice of the seaborne brides in Julie Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic,” a sense of hardship dispensed en masse yet suffered individually. But over the course of 360 pages, the constant returns to this collective voice become a bit cumbersome. Describing individuals within their group, the children use the awkward phrase “our age-mate” so often that eventually I couldn’t not notice it. At times, the individual and collective narrators seem to step on each other’s toes, covering the same events and recollections in a manner more repetitive than it is illuminating.

But these are minor quibbles, and easily overlooked given the novel’s incisive appeal to the reader’s empathy. Mbue is masterly at shading in the spaces where greed and guilt intermingle: the loneliness that follows a spouse’s early death, and on its heels the secret desire to be touched again; the wavering between whether to fight the Americans or take their money. Like Carolina de Robertis’s “Cantoras” or Huzama Habayeb’s “Velvet,” “How Beautiful We Were” charts the ways repression, be it at the hands of a government or a corporation or a society, can turn the most basic human needs into radical and radicalizing acts. In one of the novel’s more understated and moving sections, Thula’s grandmother, now nearing the end of her life, admits her one regret about her marriage is having adopted her husband’s predilection for sorrow; she wishes she’d laughed more. “Why did this world become amusing,” she asks, “only when I realized I was about to leave it?”

Indifferent to these appeals to humanity, to the human consequences of its actions in and around Kosawa, the oil conglomerate, Pexton, becomes another of Mbue’s sharply drawn characters. The way that indifference clashes so jarringly against Pexton’s public-relations offensive — its many hollow declarations of support for the village and the loved ones of the dead — will ring instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever witnessed these machinations in the real world, be it by the shores of West Africa or in the sinking oil country of southern Louisiana. So authentically does Mbue render the plain hypocrisy of corporate double-speak that it sometimes becomes difficult to tell whether even Pexton’s own employees believe any of the things they’re saying. At one point in the novel, after an American activist group decides to sue the oil company in order to force it to clean up Kosawa’s land and water, a Pexton executive comes to visit the village with an offer. The company, he says, has decided to give the villagers a share of the profits it makes off their land, though he can’t quite say what the exact percentage will be. “You have to remember, Pexton has a lot of people who want its money,” he says. “The government in America wants some of it. The government here wants their share. All the people who work for Pexton, they need their monthly salaries. But your share is also very important, because together we inhabit this valley, and we must do so peacefully.” The executive then says his employer would be happy to offer the villagers advice on what to do with their newfound wealth, such as use it to move somewhere else.

In her widely acclaimed 2016 debut, “Behold the Dreamers,” Mbue tethered the story of Cameroonian immigrants to a specific time and place (the 2008 recession in New York City). “How Beautiful We Were” has few such anchors. America in general, and New York specifically, appear both up close and from a great distance (the children of Kosawa learn from their teacher that America is a place where people live in brick houses and mash their potatoes before eating them with things called “ferks”). But for the most part the novel takes place in an invented setting, and although it begins in 1980, time becomes increasingly malleable as the narrative goes on.

There are a lot of structural elements to keep track of, and to her credit, Mbue does more than just duct-tape them together. It is profoundly affecting to watch the surviving children who were present for the first meeting with Pexton grow older over the decades, until they become parents and then grandparents, relating stories about what the village used to be. The elegiac register that runs through the entire narrative finds its best fit here in this wider arc, charting the negative spaces of these lives, all the things the children could have been and done were they not engaged in a lifelong battle to keep a foreigner from splitting open their land for profit. In this way the novel can be seen as a meditation on a question one villager asks toward the end, a question that might just contain its own answer: “Why do humans fight when we all want the same things?”

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