One Hundred Years Ago, the First Black Goncourt Laureate

In 1921, René Maran, a Martinican writer far from the Parisian literary world, shook up the cultural scene by winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt, scandalizing the colonial society of the time!
René Maran, ca. 1930. © Agence Meurice/Bibliothèque nationale de France

On December 14, 1921, the Prix Goncourt jury met at the Drouant restaurant in the second arrondissement of Paris – a tradition started the previous year. After much debate, they returned their verdict – but not one that anyone was expecting. The award was given to Batouala, (subtitled Authentic Negro Novel at the time), by a certain René Maran, an unknown author in Parisian literary circles. This civil servant in France’s overseas territories had worked in Ubangi-Shari (now the Central African Republic) and was West Indian! A Black writer winning the most prestigious French literary award was unprecedented. And it was not until 1992 than another Black author, Martinican Patrick Chamoiseau, won the prize with his book Texaco. He was then followed in 2009 by French-Senegalese writer Marie Ndiaye, honored for her novel Three Strong Women.

The choice of the 1921 Goncourt laureate was all the more surprising because Batouala, published by Les Editions Albin Michel, was hardly in keeping with the literary trends of the time and shone a harsh light on France’s supposedly civilizing mission in Africa. What’s more, the ten jurors included the monarchist Léon Daudet, J.-H. Rosny Aîné, author of the renowned The Quest for Fire, and his brother J.-H. Rosny Jeune, who were hardly the most progressive members of their generation. They must have been won over by the writer’s stylistic flair and the heady atmosphere of the African bush. (Despite steadily falling out of favor, the naturalist movement remained popular in certain circles in the early 20th century.) Poet Henri de Régnier and literary critic Jacques Boulenger, who both sponsored Maran’s novel, may also have influenced the jury’s decision. Regardless of the reasons, the Goncourt’s history is strewn with controversy, scandal, failure, and at the very least – as in this particular case – bewildering choices. Literature works in mysterious ways…

Maran’s novel is set in Ubangi-Shari during World War I. Batouala, the eponymous protagonist, is a powerful chief of a Banda village (one of the country’s main ethnic groups), supported by a feared witchdoctor. However, the world over which he reigns supreme is in danger of collapse. The culprits? The white men, the “boundjous,” whose cruelty and rapaciousness shock Batouala. The chief is also concerned about Black soldiers enrolled in the French army to fight in a war between German and French whites, the purpose of which escapes him entirely. What’s more, one of his wives, the proud Yassigui’ndja, is being courted by the charming Bissibi’ngui. Despite all Batouala’s efforts to prevent this nascent romance, the two lovebirds fall head over heels for each other. These stories take place against the backstop of giant fire ravaging the local fauna and flora, appearing to herald the end of an old world.

An Objective Observer of the African World

Born in Fort-de-France to Guyanese parents on November 5, 1887, Maran grew up in mainland France, where he went to high school at the Lycée Montaigne in Bordeaux. After studying at the Ecole coloniale (which became the École nationale de la France d’outre-mer in 1934), he was sent to work as a civil servant in Ubangi-Shari in 1912. This was when he began his literary career as a poet. Batouala, which he began in Ubangi, was his first novel. While adopting the rules of classical writing which he was taught during his studies, Maran introduced a major break in the depiction of the African reality – a reality he believed had been twisted by colonial authors. Instead of the falsified or exotic portrayals, he offered a testament based on his objective observations of the African world.

The decision to award the Goncourt to this work, which was hardly written to the glory of France, unleashed a wave of controversy. The novel was enough to spark a scandal, but it was the preface, a diatribe against the French colonial system in Africa and written by the author himself, which hit the hardest. “Civilization, civilization, pride of the Europeans and charnel-house of innocents,“ he wrote. “You have built your kingdom on corpses. You are might prevailing over right.” Yet it was not France that he was attacking, but rather the colonizers themselves: “Colonial life […] degrades a man bit by bit.”

While the French press published page after page of racist commentary, the French government decided to act and Batouala was outlawed in Africa. Two years after winning the Prix Goncourt, Maran was forced to leave his job by his superiors in 1923. He abandoned his work in the colonial administration and devoted his life to literature and literary journalism. He then married a French woman from the mainland in 1927, and published some twenty works until his death in May 1960, most of which were novels inspired by Africa. He proved himself to be an excellent wildlife writer, as well as producing historical essays and a number of biographies about people he admired with ties to Africa, such as Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and Félix Eboué.

Raising Awareness

Maran is sometimes presented as a forerunner of the Négritude movement. Yet this is not the case, although he certainly influenced writers such as the Senegalese Ousmane Socé Diop, the Dahomeyan Paul Hazoumé, and more generally the emerging Black intelligentsia. Throughout his works, Africans are described unsentimentally with both their qualities and their (supposed) faults, such as jealousy, laziness, and cowardice. “A man, no matter his color, is still a man,” he wrote.

Naturally, the Guyanese author also pointed an uncompromising finger at the abuses and dysfunctions of the colonial system. This was echoed several years later by other writers such as André Gide in Travels in the Congo (1927) and Albert Londres in Terre d’ébène (1929). But he never fundamentally questioned France’s presence in Africa. While highlighting the racism imposed by the colonial institution, the man educated at the “white man’s school,” who even went on to become a freemason, remained very close to what he called the “motherland.” If we were to label him as anything, it would be above all as a humanist.

Batouala has not gone down in history as a major Goncourt winner. And it is far from being alone. Few have heard of Nêne by Ernest Pérochon and Vitriol de Lune by Henri Béraud, which won the award in 1920 and 1922 respectively. More recently, many have already forgotten Jacques Borel’s L’Adoration, the 1965 laureate, and Anna Langfus’ Bagages de sable, which was honored in 1962.