This isn’t a likeable book. It doesn’t keep you up at night turning the pages. But it is well written and it does tell an important story about human greed and corruption – although there is very little positive to be found in the telling of it.

The novel describes a nameless man, ‘the man’, who could be anyone in Ghana in the last days of Nkrumah, well anyone who isn’t one of the ‘big men’, struggling in his dead-end job managing pointless movements of trains on the railway and trying to keep some dignity in his life: unsuccessfully. His problem is that he won’t be bribed. He refuses to play the game and become corrupt, to seek power and material wealth through dishonesty. And in Ghana at that time any man who tries to keep himself clean, above the filth of corruption, is viewed as a fool.

The futility of his task is reflected is the decay and filth of the physical aspects that surround him, as if the moral decay of the country has sunk into the very fabric of the buildings and the land. For example, a banister on the staircase at his work has, “something uncomfortably organic about it” and in a ditch, “the unconquerable filth was beginning to cake together in places”. These vivid descriptions of dirt and disgust are the most memorable parts of the novel, described in careful, delicate, lingering prose they are sickening, and they made me almost physically recoil from the book at times: Armah found a very powerful metaphor to describe Ghana under the last days of Nkrumah.

The man is also despised by his wife and mother-in-law for his inability to bend his will to the spirit of the times, and reap the rewards of dishonesty. Whilst not incriminating himself he does eventually assist his wife in her aim to be of some assistance to a ‘big man’ who used to be an old friend of his. The apparent cleanliness, crispness and deep richness of Koomson’s possessions are contrasted with the dirt and squalor outside, yet underneath the dishonesty is still there. The man is drawn to the material wealth and comfort – for the ‘loved ones’ – and becomes trapped between his inability to become dishonest and his anger with himself for wanting something he cannot bring himself to take or fully despise. 

Whilst in the end there may be some glimmer of hope for his relationship, with a wife who can perhaps start to understand his stance, there is no real escape. Both he and Koomson are covered in shit as the ‘big man’ falls, and even when he is washed clean by the sea his final observation shows that a change of government does not bring a change in the moral fibre of the country.

This is a rich, earthy book, physical and bold and I liked it for that even when, as it aimed to, it disgusted me. At times the prose is a little stilted and it takes time for events and purposes to unfold, but it is an interesting novel. Whilst it references the colonial period and seems at times to blame the country’s predicament on black men trying to ape old white colonial men it doesn’t spend all its time looking back. Instead it is pointing out what is wrong with Ghana at that point in time, but because of its lack of concentration on possible causes and possible cures it seems strangely isolated. It tells a story, and holds up a harsh and unrelenting mirror to Ghana as it was then, but what of it? In the end I would have liked to see it do some more, and suggest a way out of the spiral of death, corruption and decay.