One hundred years ago, the Martinican of Guyanese origin won the famous literary prize for “Batouala, veritable negro novel”. Colonial administrator, the writer was also a virulent critic of colonization. His most intimate novel, “A Man Like Others”, has just been reissued.
History can sometimes turn out to be unfair. If, for the youngest, the names of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor remain relatively well-known, that of René Maran is much less so. However, this writer born in Martinique of Guyanese parents on November 5, 1887 is the author of more than twenty books published in France between 1912 and 1958.
Complex and humble personality
And among these books there are Batouala – True negro novel, which won him the Goncourt Prize exactly one hundred years ago, on December 14, 1921. The first black author to receive this award, a complex and humble personality, René Maran may have paid for being the first to introduce black heroes into the world. French literature. Or, more surely, that of criticizing the colonial system. “This novel made me prisoner of the causes which I defended and which I defend”, he said, as the documentary of Fabrice Gardel and Mathieu Weschler recalls. (René Maran, the first black Goncourt, broadcast on France 3).
It must be said that at the very moment when the Goncourt is attributed to him, René Maran is in Oubangui-Chari (current Central African Republic) where he is colonial administrator! He did not receive the information until three days later, by telegram. His position in the administration is all the more surprising as in the preface of Batouala, which will cause a scandal, he denounces with virulence the abuses of the French colonial system!
Racist studies, readings and gibes
Today, on the occasion of the centenary of its Goncourt Prize, it is not Batouala which is reissued by Editions du Typhon, but A man like any other, published in 1947. And that’s a good thing because this book allows us to better understand Maran’s art, his vision of colonization and the relationship between whites and blacks.
He begins to discover colonial abuses, while he himself is one of the cogs of the system
When this book appeared, the Guyanese intellectual and dandy already had a long career behind him. Son of a colonial official, he first lived in Africa, in Gabon in particular, where he accompanied his father on his tours. Then, from the age of 7, he lived far from his parents, whom he only saw every two years, in a boarding school in Bordeaux. If he wipes many racist gibes – “ball of tallow”, “snowball”, “chocolate” -, the child studies with fervor at the lycée de Talence, then at Michel de Montaigne, where he befriends with Félix Éboué – of which he wrote a biography in 1957. Its bedside author is none other than Marc Aurèle, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher.
René Maran published his first poems at the age of 20 in a literary review. His first collection of poems, Inner Life, left in 1912 when he obtained, three years earlier, a civil servant post in the colonial administration in Fort-Archambault (today Sarh, in Chad) then in Oubangui-Chari. Petrified by classical culture, lover of books, he studies local cultures and dialects… and begins to discover colonial abuses, while he himself is one of the cogs of the system. When the 1914 war broke out, he wanted to enlist, but the administration ordered him to stay in Africa. Some time later, refused in a hotel in the Belgian Congo on the pretext that he is a Negro, Maran does not hesitate to express his indignation. He receives a blame.
“Civilization, you are building your kingdom on corpses”
In 1921, the novel on which he had been working since 1912 was accepted by the publishing house Albin Michel. The conservative press is not tender: a Negro could not write a book! He probably plagiarized other authors! As for this preface written by a field official who castigates the colonial reality, it is only a lie! Who can say a phrase like “Civilization, you are building your kingdom on corpses”? Six years later, André Gide will publish Travel to Congo, which draws up the same terrible observation.
Despite the Goncourt, or because of the Goncourt, considered an “anti-French negro” and a “traitor to the fatherland”, René Maran was forced to resign in 1924. He then thought of living with his pen, in Paris, where he begins to associate with young black francophone writers. In 1927, he married Camille Berthelot, a White …
If he felt the dangers of totalitarianism very early on, René Maran spent the entire war in France without being worried by the occupying powers, while his friend Félix Éboué declared himself a supporter of General de Gaulle on June 18, 1940.
Love and racial barriers
A man like any other appeared in 1947, two years after the end of the war. It is undoubtedly Maran’s most intimate text. He recounts the pangs of Jean Veneuse, a black colonial administrator madly in love with Andrée Marielle, who is white, to whom he wants at all costs to avoid the weight of the reproaches and disapproval from which mixed couples systematically suffer.
the ideas that delicately pierce these love stories remain surprisingly modern
In the preface to this reissue, the Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr writes: “It is in this book that he has succeeded, by giving it to live and feel more intimately, and in a beautiful mastery of his literary means, to go further to the heart of the great existential question of his work and his life: the problem of the racial barrier, even (or especially) in sentimental relationships. “
While the book will be largely overlooked, re-reading it today is, if not necessary, at least instructive. Some will find the style often outdated and the expression of feelings a tad grandiloquent. But the ideas that delicately pierce these love stories (because there are many) remain surprisingly modern.
In the sentence which gives its title to the book, René Maran writes: “I don’t know, I don’t know anymore and don’t want to try to know anything. Or rather, I only know one thing: that the negro is a man like the others, a man like the others, and that his heart, which appears simple only to the ignorant, is as complicated as can be. being that of the most complicated of Europeans. And Jean Veneuse, his hero, is indeed very complicated: he yields to Clarisse while loving Andrée, without really allowing himself to do so since he is black and she is white, he hates colonization while being colonial administrator!
Fortunately, he has relatives who know how to sing the miracles of love: “Only, you must not continue to stir up your scruples,” his friend Coulonges told him. Believe me, love breaks down all barriers, even racial ones. He is the only peacemaker, the only colonizer, the only civilized. In a word, as in a hundred, it is he, and he alone, who confers the only true rights of naturalness. “
“A harsh and cruel goddess”
Obviously, beyond intimate questions, A man like any other is also a violent plea against colonization, “a harsh and cruel goddess, who does not pay for words and feeds on blood”. And Maran continues, driving the point home: “Too practical to be sensitive, nothing distracts her from her projects. It is based on injustice and arbitrariness. To please him, it is necessary to throw in prison men dying of hunger and women nursing their children. In order to please him, it is necessary to arrest innocent people. […] Force taking precedence over law, murder celebrated and honored, that’s colonization, that’s civilization. There is no one who does not know it. So why do we like to play with words like this? Why don’t we have the right to tell everyone the truth that we have? And why, when we only relate a small part of what is obvious, do we raise so many unnecessary denials and so much hatred? “
Remember: this text was published in 1947, thirteen years before Maran’s death on May 9, 1960. Rereading it can’t hurt.
A man like any other, by René Maran, preface by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, Les Éditions du Typhon, 234 pages, 17 euros.