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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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6. Idées préconçues s’abstenir Welcome to Africa


The rhythm of Batouala’s tom-tom was at variance with the heartbeat of Maran’s preface, and once again the author was misunderstood.646

Even though Maran’s Preface insists that his novel is a succession d’eaux-fortes, rather than a traditional Western novel, readers and critics have nevertheless approached it as a European novel and focused primarily on its content. Sadji, alone, nominates the work’s form as being of overriding importance – or, indeed, of any importance – in Batouala’s uniqueness.647 Senghor, as noted earlier, emphasises the work’s stylistic unity over considerations of content.648

Disproportionate critical focus on Batouala’s controversial Preface has cast a substantial shadow over the entire work, with the result that the novel has never been able to fully emerge to claim the interest and attention it merits. Fayolle provides a cross-section of the opinion that originally judged it a stylistically banal, bewildering and largely irrelevant non sequitur:

[L]e style en est généralement déplorable […] la forme est sans valeur […] cette littérature [est] vraiment trop médiocre […] paysages ternes et incertains […] le pittoresque est cherché en farcissant les phrases de termes indigènes, ce qui est un procédé vraiment trop facile […] le souci d’exotisme se limite presque uniquement à l’emploi de vocables nègres et un lexique à la fin du volume ne serait pas inutile.649

On the final point of incomprehensibility Mille goes further, denigrating the novel’s dialogue as “trop uniformément romantique, lyrique et boursoufflé…On pense à ces singes de...

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