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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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4. Vous avez dit ambigüité ?

Extract

Batouala’s refusal to follow its Preface’s explicit denouncement of European civilisation with a narrative reversing the civilised-versus-savage dichotomy in Africa’s favour perplexed readers. As Le Cardonnel notes, the Preface “nous laisse attendre des nègres idylliques, troublés par notre cruelle civilisation, tandis qu’il [le roman] nous montre d’affreux sauvages”.383 The novel’s drunken, orgiastic ritual of genital mutilation – irrefutable ‘proof’ of African savagery – seemed irreconcilable with the Preface’s attack. Its indisputably genuine respect for the wisdom and magnificence of African culture’s sophisticated, co-operative co-existence with Nature left readers and critics wondering which side the author was on.

Unsettled by Batouala’s failure to respect Western bias, or oppose it, readers’ confusion turned to hostility. René Maran’s public persecution in the wake of his groundbreaking “act of writing back”384 provides a measure of the non-negotiability of the civilised-versus-savage dichotomy in Paris’s Jazz Age. The work’s perceived ambiguity has been an accepted basis for ongoing criticism and a major impediment to closer examination of its literary merits. The same troubling ambiguity, fortunately, also prevents the novel’s peaceful internment. Senghor’s acute insight into the author’s style again provides guidance. René Maran’s ambiguity, he suggests, is deliberate; indeed, it is his signature:

Tous les refus de René Maran peuvent se résumer dans le refus majeur de faux dilemmes : des dichotomies stériles […] il fut le premier à refuser de choisir […] Telle est l’attitude que lui dictait la recherche de la vérité ; dépasser dialectiquement les contradictions de la...

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