A pioneer novelist, his first work, Cruel City, appeared four years before Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. A brilliant and varied output followed, ranging from the irresistibly funny and sexy Mission to Kala to a scabrous satire on colonial missionaries, Poor Christ of Bomba, to (much later) an unremittingly harsh, deeply moving exploration of neo-colonial Africa in Perpetua and the Habit of Unhappiness.
A fierce polemicist, Beti also published a series of critiques of the totalitarian Cameroonian regime and of the political and economic policies of its Western allies. In exile in France for more than 30 years, he had recently returned to his homeland, a dangerous decision since his critical stance remained unsoftened. During the last few years he made several appearances at literary festivals in South Africa.
His critics accused him, as an exile, of drifting out of touch with the contemporary African scene. There is not much justice in that charge. True, he sometimes muddled the details, but on the big issues he was invariably, indomitably, right.