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René Maran’s «Batouala»


Susan Allen

The polemic excited by Batouala’s controversial Preface has conditioned an enduring, near-universal acceptance of a disjunction of Preface and novel. This is the first book to challenge that premise. The fallacious underpinnings of the origin persistence of this view are shown to lie in Western, dichotomously structured thinking. Through offshoots of the civilised- versus-savage dichotomy, namely oral- versus-written, form- versus-content and music- versus-narrative, Batouala’s Signifyin(g) discourse spills beyond the novel’s borders to reveal the sterility of dichotomy as a conceptualising structure. Dichotomy’s anachronism is thrust upon it through the work’s faithful representation of African ontology, whose water-inspired philosophy precludes it. Batouala’s structural basis is compared with that of jazz, which similarly bridges European and African civilisations, and whose African philosophical stance also acts as a provocation to the dichotomous thinking model. As Batouala «Fixed» transmutes to Batouala «Free», the pejorative implications of its widely touted ambiguity evaporate to expose a novel that is both lucid and coherent when viewed as jazz-text and jazz performance.
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8. Telling Your Story


If jazz musicians are asked to explain what they are doing when playing jazz, they will often reply that they are “telling their story”.817 In ‘telling Africa’s story’, Batouala’s jazz-text displays in written narrative form many features we associate with jazz’s oral musical expression. The marked sibling resemblance of these superficially disparate forms of expression springs from their shared parentage of African music-speech inter-changeability.

Diabaté draws our attention to the close links between the griot’s art and that of the blues performer:

En effet, l’art du griot (sic) rappelle celui du chanteur du blues […] comme dans le jazz, on ne trouve jamais chez le griot (sic) deux récits exactement identiques.818

William Barlow claims that early blues performers were “African-American variations on the famous West African ‘griot’ (sic) tradition […] descendants of the griots (sic), carrying forward the historical and cultural legacy of their people”.819 The research of Paul Oliver and Sam Charters found similarities between the blues and the music of griots – “singing styles, rhythmic figures, texturing of voice and accompanying rhythm”. ← 262 | 263 →As a result, blues scholars now routinely refer to griot music in the discussion of this form.820

Murray insists that jazz comes from, and is a form of blues music. The blues is “a device for transcending, or at least coping with adversity”, he explains, while jazz “stomp[s] away the blues”.821 The consensus among artists and critics is that almost all successful jazz is...

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