Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228
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 treated like slaves, punished unreasonably, and used as police to keep their own brothers in line; the whites are indicted for lying, for believing lies, and for callously dismissing the suffering and death of the natives. One incident in the novel tells of the French commandant who, upon hearing of Batouala’s imminent death, cheerfully replies that Batouala can rot to death and all the others with him.
The natives confuse conventions and objects they do not understand with magic, and in their reflections on that magic Maran depicts the natives’ contempt for the white usurpers as well as their awe. In his reflections, Batouala thinks of white people’s stench, particularly of their foul-smelling feet encased in skins; he marvels at the white people’s ability to remove their teeth or even an eye; he thinks of white people who can look through tubes at objects far away, and he remembers the white “doctorro” who can make anyone urinate blue. At other moments, however, he remembers the colonials’ drunkenness, their disregard for his children born of black women, and their promises never kept.
If the novel expresses nothing more than the bitterness of a subjugated people, it would not be convincing and would fail to achieve its revolutionary intention. The main character, however, Batouala, is a living man and a convincing tribesman, not a mouthpiece for Maran. He knows the value of doing nothing and distinguishes between resting for the joy of it and sheer laziness. When he discovers that the young man, Bissibi’ngui, wants to possess his favorite wife, he does not accept the fact of desire, as most do in his tribe; he determines to pursue Bissibi’ngui and pounce on him like a panther, tearing him to bits. Bissibi’ngui was already successful with eight of Batouala’s nine wives, but his attempt to add Yassigui’ndja to his list of conquests is frustrated by Batouala’s pride. Only an accident of the hunt, brought about by Batouala’s act of hurling a javelin at Bissibi’ngui instead of at a charging panther, brings about his downfall and death. Ironically, the chief who would kill like the panther dies by the panther.
Not these events alone, but, more important, the characters’ thoughts and responses intrigue the reader. While they are alive, they glory in life; the men think there is nothing better in all the world than to be strong, to run with the hunters, to be in danger, to kill the beasts that are hunted. They also delight in calling friends together, as in the circumcision ceremony, and the rhythm of their drumming conveys not only the invitation but also the spirit of it—the anticipatory joy of good food, drink, dancing, and riotous lovemaking. When a man dies from too much drink at the circumcision festival, however—as Batouala’s father died—he is soon forgotten; he is no longer useful to anyone, and only convention prompts the mourning that extends over eight days in order to make sure that the man is truly dead, not merely sleeping. Death, to the native, is a sleep so profound that a man never wakes again. The references to the gods are more conventional than pious; the concerns of the day, the joy and sorrow of it, are too compelling to leave time for either religion or metaphysics.
Batouala comes to a strange conclusion. The natives are not romanticized: They are not noble savages, but they are nevertheless noble in their direct acceptance of the needs and conventions of their lives. Even in their acceptance of superstition and in their giving way to the lust of the native dance, they seem to relate themselves more honestly to the earth about them than do the white administrators who fortify their fancied superiority with alcohol, brutality, and disdain. The problem for the white colonials becomes that of using their knowledge and power to develop something more respectable than human meanness.
There is more than truth and power to Batouala; there is poetry, the rhythmical expression of jungle images and jungle emotions. This dimension of style gives the novel a beauty that makes the crime it depicts even more reprehensible. As long as one people suffer under another, Batouala will continue to be not only a work of art but also an indictment.
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