The Book That Shook France's African Colonial Empire
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The first book by a Black author to win France’s most prestigious literary prize also forced the country to confront its brutal colonial record.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
Over six rounds of voting, the Académie Goncourt in Paris couldn’t decide the best French novel of 1921. Then, on December 14, a deciding vote cast by the organization’s president broke the deadlock and shook the Francophone world: The Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary award, had gone to René Maran, a French Guyanese colonial administrator in Ubangui-Shari — 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 Maran’s novel that truly set off tremors on both sides of the Atlantic.
“You build your realm on dead bodies,” wrote Maran in the preface to the book, Batouala. “You are living a lie. Everything you touch you consume.”
A searing indictment of French colonialism in central Africa, the book was an insider’s account that forced France to confront the reality of its “civilizational” mission, much as Joseph Conrad’s 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 Académie Goncourt, with some predicting Batouala would soon be forgotten.
They were wrong. Maran’s 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 “African point of reference” 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 NAACP’s magazine, while a young Ernest Hemingway, writing in Paris for the Toronto Star Weekly, called the book “great art.”
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 book’s preface, where Maran sheds the cloak of fiction to directly take on French colonialism, that is Batouala’s lasting legacy, says Christopher Miller, a professor in the African-American studies department at Yale.
“The preface is read much more than the novel as a whole,” says Miller.
Maran didn’t start out trying to change the world. He was a child of French colonialism, born on a ship headed to Martinique from his parents’ native French Guyana in 1887. His father was an officer in Gabon’s 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 “the Negroes’ atavism resists the stamp of civilization.”
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 the preface, written later. The book “just paints, without any emotion, the Black man as the author sees him,” says Chidi Ikonné, 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. “The natives,” Maran wrote, “were broken down by incessant toil, for which they were not paid. … They saw disease come and take up its abode with them, saw famine stalk their land, saw their numbers grow less and less.”
Still, the novel itself doesn’t shy away from such themes, and Maran used the character of Batouala to give voice to locals’ anger and frustration. At one point, the chief is almost as scathing as Maran’s preface. “We are nothing but flesh out of which taxes may be ground,” Batouala says. “We are nothing but beasts of burden. Beasts? Not even that! … The White men are killing us slowly.”
But Batouala itself didn’t bring about the full-fledged investigation into excesses in French Africa that Maran had hoped for. Six years later, White French author André Gide — who would later win the Nobel Prize for literature — 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 world’s attention gained independence as the Central African Republic.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, OZY Author Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi