Batouala is important not as a story—although within its modest limits it provokes suspense and sustains interest in the affairs of its characters—but as a sensitive evocation of the experience of being an African native in the French Congo. René Maran, who was born in Martinique, served from 1909 until 1925 as a member of the diplomatic service of the French government in French Equatorial Africa. His novel, the result of six years of study and writing, is an attempt to render in a thoroughly objective manner the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes of an African chief.
The attempt to be objective in the presentation of thoughts and attitudes necessarily involves the author’s sympathetic extension of his imagination. Maran’s work rings true not because he is a black man—for the knowledge of the temperament and the customs of the black Africans is not inherited with skin color—but because he is concerned about the people of whose lives he writes and because, like them, he has come to love life and to condemn the French colonialism that did so much to destroy the values of life for the African natives.
The technique of the novel can be described as stream of consciousness, supplemented to some extent with descriptive passages that maintain the perspective of the African. At the same time, the persons whose experiences are being evoked are not of the same society as their author but removed, both spatially and in terms of culture, from the world of this stranger who is attempting to reconstruct the tenor of their days. To overcome the distance between himself and his subjects, Maran adopts a modification of the speech of the Africans; he writes as if their minds were speaking, and he retains their native phrasing. More important, he manages to express the smoldering, helpless anger that is part of the daily experience of Africans dominated by the white invaders. Such writing is objective in the sense that it communicates what is, in fact, part of someone’s experience; but it is passionate and subjective because the reader can sense that the author shares the anger and, by sharing it, throws in his lot with that of his characters.
This brief novel, which does no more than tell how a young man’s desire for the favorite wife of his chief is finally satisfied as the chief lies dying from the wound of a panther’s bite, succeeds remarkably well in immersing the reader in a complete and foreign world. Considered didactically, the novel is powerfully effective because of its success representing the experiences of the African.
Maran’s indictment of the colonial administrators in the introduction to his novel speaks of the vileness of colonialization and of civilization built on corpses. He calls on his fellow writers to correct France’s brutal policies. These remarks, however impassioned, do not compete in persuasive power with the sparse, bitter comments of the Africans themselves in the novel. The characters refer to the way they are...
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