On December 14, 1921, the jury for the Goncourt Prize, which had met since last year at the Drouant restaurant, at 2e arrondissement of Paris, gave its settlement. Surprise! The price comes to Batouala, subtitle True novel negro, to a specific René Maran, an anonymous author of Paris literary circles. The French foreign ruler primarily assigned to Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic) was the West Indian. A black man to be recognized at France’s most prestigious prize? Not heard at the time. Back in 1992 another black man, Martiniquais Patrick Chamoiseau, received the prize Texaco. This was followed, in 2009, by Franco-Senegalese Marie Ndiaye, awarded for Three strong women.
The choice of Goncourt in 1921 was even more astonishing as Batouala, published in Albin Michel’s editions, was almost unable to respond to the canons of the literature of the time and that it undermined France’s supposed mission civilization to Africa. And this even if the ten jurors, including the monarchist Léon Daudet, J.-H. Rosny Aîné, author of the famous Fire war, and his brother J.-H. Rosny Jeune, don’t particularly shine on their progressive ideas. There is no doubt that they are sensitive to the author’s stylistic styles and to the astonishing state of his awakening in the African woods. Even in decline, naturalism still had its supporters at the beginning of the 20th century.e century Did the interventions of the poet Henri de Régnier and the critic Jacques Boulenger, who promoted Maran’s book, influence the choice of the jury? As such, we know, Goncourt’s history has been marred by controversies, scandals, failures or, at least, as in this case, choices that are difficult to understand. Literary passages are sometimes impenetrable.
The story of this year’s 1921 award-winning book takes place somewhere in Oubangui-Chari during the First World War. Batouala, the eponymous character, is a powerful village chief in Banda (one of the chief ethnic groups in the Central African Republic) and a dreaded doctor. Except that the universe in which he reigns as the perfect master is shaking at its foundations. It was blamed on the Whites, the “bound”, whose brutality and willingness to scandalize Batouala. He was also worried about seeing black soldiers enlisting the French army to take part in the war between “white Frandjés” and “white Zalemans” that he could not understand. Moreover, one of his wives, his favorite, the boasted Yassigui’ndja, was insensitive to the homosexuality made by the attractive Bissibi’ngui. Despite all of Batouala’s efforts to break the germ idyll, the two lovebirds manage to spin the perfect love. All in the yard of a huge fire where, plants and animals are destroyed, as to announce the end of a bygone world.