One would have thought that a person born on a ship between two countries would automatically win the status of citizen of the world. Born on the high seas, in international waters, such a person could say that he belonged to no one country, but to all of them, or at least, perhaps, to those countries whose coasts are lapped by the sea of birth. In the case of René Maran it was the Atlantic, so he could have had numerous options as to which country would issue him a passport: Brazil, Iceland, Namibia. Why not? The sky’s the limit. But reality, in all cases, is the true limiting factor. Nationalism is real, patriotism, too. Citizenship is granted to those born within the borders of a land, and even then, if a person looks different, or invokes a different God, or uses exotic spices in the kitchen, citizenship might be tenuous. Patria; fatherland, homeland, all these words are exclusive in nature. At the very least, patriotism is parochial. Just ask Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, born in Syracuse, New York, who, as far as many are concerned, is not truly an American, and not even of Indian descent (because India is our friend); she is being maligned as an enemy combattant, a terrorist, even. Truly, her campaign to promote the celebration of diversity is praiseworthy, and we wish her well, but we also realize that she has her work cut out for her. Xenophobia and racism abound, and trump citizenship.
In the end, René Maran was French, perhaps. The boat on which he was born in 1887 had left Guiana, then as now a French colony, although today called a TOM (from the acronym DOM/TOM: départments d’outre-mer/territoires d’outre-mer, or overseas departments/overseas territories). The boat landed in a few days in Martinique, another French holding, today a full-fledged department of France, identical to the status of Hawaii or Alaska as states of the U.S. But French citizenship did not grant René Maran equal treatment insofar as the world of literature was concerned: today he is known as a mere francophone, a speaker of French, a writer of French, but not born inside the French hexagon, or even in Corsica, whence hails Napoleon. Nobody would dare deny the Great Usurper’s citizenship. Same with Camus, who was not born in France, either, yet he is today considered a French writer, along with Heredia, Ionesco, Beckett and Amin Maalouf, with nary a thought as to their true origins: Algeria, Cuba, Roumania, Ireland, Lebanon. But René Maran, unfortunately, is not known as a French writer, frankly, because his skin was black. According to Hemingway, Maran was “black as Sam Langford (the boxer).” An apt comparison, for Langford, who was Canadian, also had to deal with his share of segregationist woe.
So if Maran was born on French overseas soil, why, then, is there equivocation in the descriptive adjectives used to describe him? Perhaps he is just a colonial acquisition born of exploitation and confiscation, like chattels, valuable assets, similar to cocoa nuts or vanilla. Like beaver skins or elephant tusks or shrunken heads pilfered while on vacation to awe the folks back home. Viewed as a possession, the writer is put in his place, where he does not threaten the owner, France’s, position as overseer. Ah, Imperialism, thy breadth is vast and thy reach ubiquitous!
(The reader will of course remember that Alexandre Dumas was the son of a mulatto, but Dumas, in spite of the racist discrimination he had to contend with, always wore his French citizenship with brio: perhaps it was because the color of his skin was not so dark, or because his grandfather was a marquis, albeit an impoverished one, or maybe because he was born in the region of Picardy; I think it is because of his standard response whenever some idiot xenophobe insulted his ethnicity: “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather a Negro and my great-grandfather a monkey. So you see, monsieur, that my family begins at the point where yours ends!”)
Still, for those of us who work within the confines of reality’s limiting factors while simultaneously challenging it to expand its limits, if René Maran has been relagated to the status of a man without a precise country, it does not matter. Truly, it is worth repeating: it does not matter. This colonial writer’s ambitions were always beyond the parochial, beyond the frontier, beyond restrictive nomenclature. He aspired to be a man of the world, to encompass some universality that would free him from the straitjacket that the rest of the world preferred to place on him. Was he truly, irremediably, black, then? Or did he succeed in presenting himself like the universal man he thought he was, engrossed in the 20th-Century existentialist concerns of personal liberty and responsibility, imbued with a sense of social justice, and cognizant of the imbalance between the privileged colonial powers and the disadvantaged, dark-skinned, poor?
A man without a country, Maran wished to be without a race as well, but, again, the world would not allow it. He would have wished that all of humanity be free of labels, of constricting designations that separate people into groups of “us” and “them”, “ours” and “theirs”. Furthermore, one can imagine that he also spoke French with one of the Caribbean French lilts that abound in that region, however slight, in his case, but which serve to mark the individual as… other. Outre: beyond. Autre: another, an other. Camus played this word game: étranger, étrange; stranger, strange—foreigner, foreign. The French mercilessly remind the francophone non-native speaker that he is not of their kind. Just ask any Quebecker, even today. And most of them are of white French extraction. Thus Maran had several barriers to transcend before he would be considered, if ever, a Frenchman. His writings, his talent, his intelligence, brought him close, very close, but today, sadly, he apparently does not deserve that coveted status, that shining star of being, fundamentally being, French. On the contrary, he is known as the father of “la négritude”, a bestowal granted as if it were an accomplishment worthy of pride. But to the bestowers, it is just another label that Maran deemed a further restrictive barrier, a barrier of racism, created to continue distancing him, and people like him, from the world of the white. Nobody has ever called Camus the father of “la pied-noiritude”.
Xenophobia and racism annihilate genius and artistry. The proof of this lies in the fact that hardly any one has heard of René Maran today, in 2014, including those of us who took several francophone courses in our post-graduate days. This is in spite of Maran having won the prestigious Goncourt Prize for literature upon the publication of his novel Batouala in 1922. He published a book of poems, Le visage calme, that year as well. Hemingway called Batouala “a great novel.” Sartre thought him a great writer. Maran had a Twayne volume devoted to him, published in 1985, authored by Keith Cameron, professor at the University of Exeter, who stated in the first line of the first chapter, “René Maran: the name has disappeared virtually into oblivion.” In spite of this excellent volume devoted entirely to Maran, almost thirty years later, that oblivion doesn’t seem less dark, nor less permanent.
Less generous critics might say that René Maran deserves his descent into the solution hole of history. Neither genius nor artistry was enough to keep him from the plunge into which, let’s face it, mediocrity is delegated. When faced with a second-rate talent, we must resign ourselves to the fate of all lackluster art, and as it drops from view we move away. That Maran received attention, even accolades, in the 1920s is in the historic register. However, it could be said that this black man rode the decade-long romance that France had with negritude, this being the time of Josephine Baker; of Harlem Renaissance writers who felt more at home in France than, well, at home; when jazz and the musicians imported to play it were all the rage. Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where she was a far cry from having to dress topless, with only a banana skirt to cover her pulchritude. Yet, she merited her sobriquet of «la déesse créole», giving in with acclaimed abandon to the stereotype demanded by the French public: the black «sauvage», meaning wild, as in untamed nature, and the «femme primitive», calling to mind Rousseau’s noble savage who, by being close to nature, has not yet had a chance to become corrupt. Her indigenous stage persona was complete with the addition of her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who accompanied her onto the stage. (Many years later, in 1936, Baker would play the lead in a revival of Offenbach’s opera La Créole, demonstrating her vocal prowess and a more sophisticated allure, even though she was still playing a formulaic role to which she had grown accustomed.)
Exoticism was in the air. The Age of Jazz electrified Parisian audiences and foreign artists and musicians were welcomed with open arms. It is possible that René Maran rode this wave into town. At the very least, it opened doors for him, the fact that he was from the “New World” side of France’s Empire perhaps helping him even more. Did the African-Americans share with the African-Caribbeans any doubts, any angst, as to why they were made at home in 1920s France? African-Africans (the black ones, not the Arab-Africans or the Jewish-Africans—and who in hell invented this useless nomenclature?) could have told them. These colonials, inhabitants of lands possessed by France, were also possessions of France. Technically no longer slaves, they were still treated like so much chattel, oppressed, subjugated and managed. Like their British, Portuguese and Dutch counterparts elsewhere on the African continent, the French saw themselves as the masters, and the indigenous populations as the assets that they needed to exploit, since, without European help, these African societies would remain in squalor and anarchy. If certain individuals were allowed to travel to France, they became second-class citizens, if they were allowed to become citizens at all. Was René Maran begrudgingly recognized for his artistry because negritude was in the air? Was he given the Goncourt Prize because the Goncourt people felt a tinge of regret, or embarrassment, for the way he and his kind were treated? Sartre seems to think so, for he equates the self-congratulatory bestowal of the Goncourt Prize to a black with the “dangl[ing] of a carrot in front of their eyes.” He also gives a voice to the people colonial administrators have stepped on: “You are making monsters out of us; your humanism wants us to be universal and your racist practices are differentiating us.”
It would be a balm to the soul to believe that the Goncourt Prize was given to Batouala because the judges thought it was a great novel. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Batouala is indeed a phenomenal piece of art, a modern novel with a narrative voice devoid of an overt agenda, free of militancy, a dry-eyed, clear-eyed, direct and objective glance into a society displaced, dislocated from its traditional moorings, and redirected according to the whims of a master race who has only its primacy as its objective. The indifference at best, and the violence at worst, with which the whites treat the blacks is abhorrent, and one quickly identifies who the real “barbarians” are. Where the whites have taken up residence they have made the natives’ “zest for living disappear.” “They lie for nothing. They lie as one breathes, with method and memory. And by their lies they establish their superiority over us.” Batouala cannot fight against them, but he can at least inveigh against them, saying “I will never tire of telling of the wickedness of the ‘boudjous.’ Until my last breath I will reproach them for their cruelty, their duplicity, their greed.” The boudjous had no heart: how else to explain the way they abandoned the children they had by black women? How else to explain the forced labor that enslaves the Africans, that makes the Colonials look “like a flight of vultures on carrion?”
In spite of the evil treatment at the hands of the Colonials, the dispossessed blacks continue with their old lives as much as they can, living the quotidian in order to survive, their contempt for the masters being their sole solace in their grim existence. They have to hide their traditional celebrations from the white man, overtly sexual dances that, steeped in eons of repetition as they are, end in circumsicion for the young men and excision for the young women, and the reader is privy to these secret rituals as if Maran’s writing was a cultural documentary on the foreign practices of native tribes, clinically, without criticism, without judgment. Within the context of the clash between societies, there is also the human aspect of a tribal leader, Batouala, excercising his rights as a powerful chieftain who can have multiple wives, and who, as the human he is, is beset by jealousy when a younger rival shows interest in his prinicipal wife, Yassigui’ndja. This woman would have been a sister to Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary had she only worn gowns, shoes and gloves, but bare-chested and living in a dirt-floor hut the conflict she feels between her obedience to her husband and the excitement of a lover descends into that stoic documentary of African fauna which observes but does not judge.
Maran places us between two worlds, between France and its colonies, between true French speakers and mere francophones, between white and black, and between the arrogance of the colonial powers who, knowing full well that slavery is illegal and yet have found new methods to enslave anyway, and the African tribes torn from their native lands, but determined to survive as best they can.
Batouala was translated into sixteen languages, and won accolades for Maran, as well as threats and insults. Even a deputy to the Colonies asked his minister “what sanctions he was planning to take against this writer.” The succès à scandale of the book is provable by the very fact that it was outlawed in all the French-African colonies. But it wasn’t until 1927, when André Gide published his Voyage au Congo, that Maran felt a sort of moral vindication. This time a white man had dared to criticize the exploitation by the French of African natural resources and peoples, and this time, Gide’s observations were enough to unleash anti-colonial movements in France.
Maran spent the next forty years writing (poetry, short stories, novels, essays, biographies), while continuing to be a “colonial of color” in Africa. He influenced a new generation of francophone African writers, Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, who eclipsed him, and relegated him to the shadows. Too bad, for he deserves better, for having been there first, for having sounded the clarion for the powerless, the dispossessed, the men and women of Africa who also deserved better, and that was to be treated with dignity and respect for their ancient culture and civilization. Who was the white man to say that they should not? Whence came their feeling of superiority? What gave them the right to mistreat, to punish, to play God with the defenseless? Who made them King? Today, we are still in the throes of white European mismanagement, of Colonial dispersal of native peoples, of arbitrary geographical divisions that ignored traditional homelands, of the looting and thievery of Africa’s natural resources, of the subjugation and abuse of entire populations. The world of Maran’s Batouala, by the simplicity of its portrayal of just a tiny segment of one of these populations, accuses eloquently those overwhelming forces of repression who, if they had any conscience at all, would hang their heads in shame.