Bernard Dadié: Un Nègre à Paris (An African in Paris)
This is not really a novel – Dadié called it a chronicle – but it is written in the form of a novel. It tells the story of an African from Senegal, who travels to Paris and records his reactions to Paris and France, as seen from the perspective of his own culture. Our eponymous hero has many surprises but describes his reactions without using sarcasm or satire, though he is somewhat surprised by what he finds and what the French or, more particularly, the Parisians do and don’t do. His first surprise is to find that he is the only black man in Paris. His next surprise is what he describes as the great wonder of Paris, namely the Metro system. Towards the end of the book, he will wonder why the Parisians have not raised a statue to the man who conceived the Metro system.
Much of the rest of the book is amusing and, indeed, well thought out, with our hero questioning aspects of Paris and French life. Why is a man only allowed one wife? Why do Parisians run around so much, even on the day of rest? He marvels at their obsession with flowers and pets and their consumption of salt. Why do Parisians not talk to their neighbours? He does not fully understand journalism and writers, who are different from those in his own country, and the popular press remains even more of a mystery. He questions their history (all the tributes to Napoleon exist solely to annoy the English) and seems to know more about it than many a Frenchman. He finally comes upon the essential difference between the French and the Africans. In the hotel where he is staying, the maid is initially cold but becomes more convivial, particularly when he leaves her a tip. But despite their increasing friendliness, she will never give him more than three lumps of sugar for his coffee, while an African maid would certainly have done so.
The story is recounted in a fairly low key style but it is certainly interesting to see his impression of Paris and the Parisians from the perspective of an African. He manages to run through many of the foibles of the French and the Parisians and makes us thinks of aspects of their culture, some of which, of course, are to found in other Western cultures, that we might not otherwise have thought of.
First published by Présence africaine in 1959
First English translation in 1994 by University of Illinois Press
Translated by Karen C Hatch