René Maran (mah-rahn) was given little attention by the English-speaking world. His chief claim to fame was his Goncourt Prize novel, Batouala, the first book by a black author to be so honored. Maran was born in Martinique of Guyanese parents. After a four-year stay in Gabon, Central Africa, where his father was serving in a colonial post, Maran returned in 1894 to France, where he attended the lycée. He later completed his baccalaureate at Bordeaux, which he thereafter regarded as home.
Like his father, Maran entered the French colonial service. In 1910 he left for Bangui to serve as petty officer in charge of indigenous affairs in the Ubangi-Shari territory of French Equatorial Africa (present-day Central African Republic). The only black Frenchman to hold such a post, Maran served from 1910 to 1925. Maran’s first book of poems, as well as his novels, short stories, and essays, reflect this experience. He stated that he spent six years, off and on, writing his best work by observing the ways of the tribal groups and learning their languages. Some critics felt that he included too much dialect for the average reader; certainly he caught the exotic flavor of the African continent (according to one reviewer, better than anyone has done since Pierre Loti). In his own introduction, Maran sharply questions how much the white man puts the burden on his colored colonials. After winning the Goncourt Prize in 1921, he described flora and fauna of Africa, its native peoples and their problems, and other such matters for a variety of periodicals ranging from Le Monde Illustré to Candide.
Maran’s later books include one on the legends and customs of the Ubangi, the explorations of Scotsman David Livingstone, and the lives of a number of pioneers in Africa, in addition to novels and adventure books describing wild animal life. To date Batouala is the only one of his books translated into English. A writer between two worlds—the one that he wrote about but never identified with, and the other that he loved dearly but which certainly did not fully embrace or claim him—Maran has remained controversial and his literary vision paradoxical.