René Maran: Batouala (Batouala)
In reviewing the novel, Hemingway said of it You smell the smells of the village, you eat its food, you see the white man as the black man sees him, and after you have lived in the village you die there. That is all there is to the story, but when you have read it, you have seen Batouala, and that means that it is a great novel. It is allegedly the first novel about a black man written by a black man. I am not sure if this is true but it is certainly the first novel written by a black man to win the Goncourt Prize. It tells the story of the Bandas, a tribe in Oubangui-Chari, in the present day Central African Republic, led by the strong Batouala, but currently under French rule. (Aaah, the white men. What did they want, so far from their homes, in the black country? It would be best if they went home and stayed here.) From the opening chapter – thirty pages which describe Batouala as he wakes up, contemplates the day, his wife lying by his side and his dog and thinks about his life, while slowly getting up – to the death at the end, Maran’s focus is on the customs, culture and life of this African tribe, faced with French colonialism. While much of the novel is a sympathetic portrait of the tribe, with continuous criticism of the French mixed in, there is a plot, with the young Bissibi’ngui challenging Batouala for leadership of the tribe and for his wife. It is told sympathetically, and with humour. It is interesting to compare it with other novels told from the point of view of the colonised, such as Kourouma‘s Monnè (Monnew).
First published 1921 by Albin
First published in English 1922 by Jonathan Cape
Translated by Barbara Beck and Alexander Mboukou