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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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3. Véritable roman nègre Batouala’s Literary Context


Although René Maran unquestionably deserves his title of “founding father of black literature in French”, attempts to categorise Batouala’s literary impact have been marred by controversy and confusion.265 Ultimately, the work’s literary reputation has rested upon its pioneering role in an historical and political sense. While acknowledging Batouala’s uniqueness and importance, critics have largely relegated the novel to precursor status in the evolution of African writing. Its literary legacy has been compromised and diminished by the subsequent, more conspicuously Afro-centric works of the Négritude writers and poets. Dorothy S. Blair describes Maran as “important but marginal” in the field of African writing, while Mineke Schipper views him as merely a link between French colonial and Francophone African literature.266

Senghor’s more profound understanding of Maran’s literary style recognises that Batouala’s written French permits the African voice to emerge with an authority that places it on a par with that of the European:

Tout le ‘roman nègre’ en Francophonie procède de René Maran […] Après Batouala, on ne pourra plus faire vivre, travailler, aimer, pleurer, rire, parler les Nègres comme les Blancs. Il ne s’agira même plus de leur faire parler ‘petit-nègre’, mais wolof, malinké, éwondo en français. Car c’est René Maran, qui, le premier, a exprimé ‘l’âme noire’, avec le style nègre, en français.267

Despite Senghor’s anointing Maran “[le] précurseur de la Négritude”,268 his links with the Négritude movement have been...

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