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René Maran’s «Batouala»

Jazz-Text

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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1. As if the Novel were Almost Irrelevant Batouala’s Reception

Extract

In 1921, Batouala’s daring and provocative reversal of black and white worlds marked not only a complete departure in French literature; it was an historic, political and ideological milestone. René Maran, the first black author to recount the African experience of Western civilisation through colonialism, was also the first to give literary voice to an unexpurgated black world-view which, until then, had existed almost exclusively in speech and song.Batouala’s potent cocktail of politically volatile and culturally controversial content touched an acutely raw nerve in France and beyond, triggering rage and galvanising prejudice as the novel drew the Western world’s attention to the deplorable conditions in Oubangui-Chari in French Equatorial Africa and, by extension, to colonial settlements everywhere.45 The work’s conspicuous literary merit has been the principal casualty of this success.

When the initial thirty copies of Batouala appeared in bookshops in June 1921, Maran was virtually unknown. His only published works at that time were two volumes of poetry, La Maison du bonheur (1909) and La Vie intérieure (1912). Becoming the first black author to win France’s Prix Goncourt on December 14 sealed his fate.46 From one man’s uncensored, unflattering report card on France’s mission civilisatrice in Africa and his heartfelt plea for change, Batouala was catapulted to world centre stage, taking the reputation of France with it.

← 3 | 4 →In assessing the initial reviews of Batouala, Roger Fayolle makes the critical observation that only rarely did a reviewer give a short résumé of...

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