The Book That Shook France's African Colonial Empire
Over six rounds of voting, the AcadÃ©mie Goncourt in Paris couldnât decide the best French novel of 1921. Then, on December 14, a deciding vote cast by the organizationâs president broke the deadlock and shook the Francophone world: The Prix Goncourt, Franceâs top literary award, had gone to RenÃ© Maran, a French Guyanese colonial administrator in Ubangui-Shari â" what is today the Central African Republic. Maran was the first Black winner of the then-18-year-old award. But as civil rights and anti-colonial movements were stirring, it was the content of Maranâs novel that truly set off tremors on both sides of the Atlantic.
âYou build your realm on dead bodies,â wrote Maran in the preface to the book, Batouala. âYou are living a lie. Everything you touch you consume.â
A searing indictment of French colonialism in central Africa, the book was an insiderâs account t hat forced France to confront the reality of its âcivilizationalâ mission, much as Joseph Conradâs Heart of Darkness had lifted the veil on Belgian brutality in the Congo two decades earlier. The French Parliament debated the book, with some accusing Maran of defamation and others arguing that he had exposed exploitation. Several French writers criticized the AcadÃ©mie Goncourt, with some predicting Batouala would soon be forgotten.
They were wrong. Maranâs own career as a colonial administrator ended soon after, and faced with threats of retribution, he returned to Paris in 1923. But he became the âAfrican point of referenceâ for writers of the Harlem Renaissance, according to the late French expert on African-American studies Michel Fabre. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about Maran and Batouala in The Crisis, the NAACPâs magazine, while a young Ernest Hemingway, writing in Paris for the Toronto Star Weekly, called the book â great art.â
We are nothing but flesh out of which taxes may be ground.
Batouala, the fictional central African chief, in the eponymous novel
The book follows aging Ubangui-Shari chief Batouala, who watches, puzzled and outraged, as White colonizers take over his land and as one of his nine wives falls for a younger man. But it is the bookâs preface, where Maran sheds the cloak of fiction to directly take on French colonialism, that is Batoualaâs lasting legacy, says Christopher Miller, a professor in the African-American studies department at Yale.
âThe preface is read much more than the novel as a whole,â says Miller.
Maran didnât start out trying to change the world. He was a child of French colonialism, born on a ship headed to Martinique from his parentsâ native French Guyana in 1887. His father was an officer in Gabonâs French colonial administration, and at the age of 6, Maran was shipped off to a boarding school near Bordeaux. He followed his father into the colonial administration in 1909 at the age of 22.
He faithfully served the French in Ubangui-Shari, where his attitude toward locals was ambiguous. The colonial regime was brutally oppressive in collecting taxes, extracting rubber and crushing rebellions, and Maran demonstrated sympathies for the people of Ubangui-Shari in letters to friends. But in one letter, he also wrote that âthe Negroesâ atavism resists the stamp of civilization.â
Then, in 1918, came what some historians view as a turning point: A local porter named Mongo was murdered, and Maran was accused of the crime. While the future author insisted he was covering for a White subordinate notorious for ill-treating locals, none of his colleagues came to his defense, and Maran was prosecuted and reprimanded.
That might explain why the book, which he started writing in 1913, is less confrontational in its criticism of colonialism than th e preface, written later. The book âjust paints, without any emotion, the Black man as the author sees him,â says Chidi IkonnÃ©, a Nigerian scholar of African literature. In recent decades, Maran has faced criticism from literary analysts who argue that his exoticization of locals in Batouala only reinforced the stereotypes of lazy, hypersexual Africans already embedded deep in Western minds.
By contrast, the preface was pointed. âThe natives,â Maran wrote, âwere broken down by incessant toil, for which they were not paid. â¦ They saw disease come and take up its abode with them, saw famine stalk their land, saw their numbers grow less and less.â
Still, the novel itself doesnât shy away from such themes, and Maran used the character of Batouala to give voice to localsâ anger and frustration. At one point, the chief is almost as scathing as Maranâs preface. âWe are nothing but flesh out of which taxes may be ground,â Batouala says. âWe ar e nothing but beasts of burden. Beasts? Not even that! â¦ The White men are killing us slowly.â
But Batouala itself didnât bring about the full-fledged investigation into excesses in French Africa that Maran had hoped for. Six years later, White French author AndrÃ© Gide â" who would later win the Nobel Prize for literature â" visited Equatorial Africa and reported similar findings, which spurred limited reforms. Maran, his work vindicated, went on to a career as a writer and journalist in Paris and died in May 1960. Two months later, the region whose plight he had brought to the worldâs attention gained independence as the Central African Republic.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.
The World's Poorest Country Spends the Most on WeaponsCentral African Republic
Roots of Power: The Long Journey of Buddha's ToothSri Lanka
Meet Tamerlane, the Other Genghis KhanUzbekistan