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Prize Fights: René Maran, Battling Siki and the Triumph of the Black Man in France, 1922

Christopher L. Miller, Yale University. Christopher Rivers, Mount Holyoke College.

[Article published in Contemporary French Civilization 36, no. 3 (Winter 2011):219-247.]


In France, in the wake of World War I, within the span of nine months, two victories in two different competitive spheres—one in sports, one in literature--generated waves of anxiety and speculation about the philosophical, political, and cultural meanings of race and empire. In December 1921 the Prix Goncourt was awarded to Martinican-born René Maran for his “véritable roman nègre” Batouala; then, in September 1922, the Senegalese-born boxer Amadou M’barick Louis Fall, known as Battling Siki, defeated the beloved “Idol of France,” Georges Carpentier. Maran was the first black recipient of a French literary prize; Siki was the first African world champion in any sport.  Both were French citizens. For the first time, huge numbers of French people took note of the accomplishments of their black compatriots and asked themselves questions about race and empire. This essay examines the Affaire Batouala and the Affaire Siki as curious, intertwined stories of racial triumph and peril, in truth and in the popular imagination.  

For centuries, forever, whites have been writing. They write anything they want about Negroes. For once a Negro has written something you don’t like—don’t hang him for it!

René Boisneuf, speaking in the Chambre des députés about René Maran’s novel Batouala, December 21, 1922

 “Ever since colonialism has existed, the Whites have been paid to bash in the faces of the Blacks. For once, a Black has been paid to do the same thing to a White.”

        Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh), “About Siki,” La Paria, December 1, 1922

Contact Zones

In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, literary and cultural critic Mary Louise Pratt articulates the notion of the “contact zone,” a “transnational space in which cultures meet and exchange ideas.”[1] Literature is of course one of the most obvious of such “spaces:” books are circulated and exchanged across lines of nationality, culture and race. They can, and often do, create a global conversation. Somewhat less obvious is the fact that in the early twentieth century sports began for the first time to create a truly global conversation as well. This was particularly true of boxing. As historian Theresa Runstedtler has demonstrated, boxing was a cultural contact zone par excellence. Speaking specifically of Paris, Runstedtler notes that the contact zone created by the sport of boxing created a “transnational flow of popular ideas about race, manhood, empire, and the body” (Runstedtler, 311). Fighters of different nationalities, cultures and races competed in the ring; fights were held in a variety of locations in different parts of the world; fans all over the world followed, via remarkably exhaustive newspaper and (later) radio coverage, the fortunes of world-class boxers.[2] But literature and boxing are not only zones of contact among cultures, they are also arenas of competition. In France, with its highly sought-after, highly prestigious and highly publicized literary prizes, literature is an almost equally competitive enterprise, a virtual contact sport.

In France, in the wake of World War I, within the span of nine months, two victories in two different competitive spheres—one corporeal, one intellectual--generated great torrents of anxiety and speculation about the philosophical, political, and cultural meanings of race and empire. This happened first in December 1921, with the awarding of the Prix Goncourt to Martinican-born René Maran for his “véritable roman nègre” Batouala and then, in September 1922, with the triumph of Senegalese-born Amadou M’barick Louis Fall, known as Battling Siki, over the beloved “Idol of France,” Georges Carpentier. Maran was the first black recipient of a French literary prize; Siki was the first African world champion in any sport.  Both were French citizens.  Never before had any black Frenchmen been as famous, or as successful, as Maran and Siki were in 1922.  Never before (with the notable exception of the Haitian Revolution) had there been such dramatic proof of the ability of black men to compete with, and even triumph over, their white counterparts. Predictably, both victories led to scandal: the affaire Batouala and the affaire Siki.

The simultaneity of the two victories, the controversial nature of the decisions, and the fact that they took place in such contrasting but symbolically weighty pursuits got everyone talking. The finer points of colonial policy and the abstract notions underpinning it were hardly fodder for man-on-the-street debate, but a literary prize and a world boxing title were. Everyone loves a contest.

René Maran

René Maran was thoroughly French: by birth, by citizenship, and by education. But he was also a “colonial” in a particularly complex way. Born on board a ship headed to Martinique from his parents’ native French Guyana, René Maran was raised as a child of French colonialism. Both Guyana and Martinique were at the time colonial territories whose inhabitants were French citizens by birthright. Maran’s father served and died as a French administrator in Gabon, among the 10% of French colonial officers in Africa who were blacks from the French Caribbean (Cohen, 231). Sent as living proof of the value of French civilization, these Antilleans nonetheless had an ambiguous status. One of them, Félix Eboué (also from French Guyana), rose to become Governor General of French Equatorial Africa. But most labored in anonymity, subject to petty discrimination; Maran’s father, by his son’s account, felt thwarted, passed over for honors and awards because of his race (see Onana, 45). After a few years in Africa with his parents, young René was sent, at age 6, to boarding school outside Bordeaux and grew up essentially as an “orphan.” After completing his secondary education, he followed in his father’s footsteps and, at the age of 22, joined the colonial service. Commissioned as an administrator for native affairs in 1909, he was sent to the French Congo. Living and working in Oubangui-Shari (now the Central African Republic), in the Grimari region that he called “inert bush,” Maran felt bored, embattled, and harassed (Onana, 39). The colonial regime, under the Native Code of 1910, was brutally dedicated to collecting taxes, extracting rubber, and repressing rebellions. On the one hand, Maran witnessed with devastated sympathy the plight of the colonized Africans, who were practically enslaved. On the other hand, Maran found that “the Negroes’ atavism resists the stamp of civilization” (Maran letter to Manoel Gahisto, April 14, 1919, quoted in Dennis, 102). His feelings were radically ambivalent.

In 1918, his predicament took a dramatic turn when he was accused of killing an African named Mongo. According to one analysis of the record, “since the Europeans mocked him in front of the Africans, sometimes [Maran] had to resort to physical force in order to secure respect from the latter” (Dennis, 82). But Maran said he was “covering” for a white subordinate whose name he had promised not to divulge, who had brutalized numerous Africans (Maran, “Ma Condamnation,” 2). None of his colleagues came to his defense in the “Affaire Mongo,” he was prosecuted and reprimanded, and his professional reputation suffered.[3] His fall from grace as a result of the Mongo Affair no doubt emboldened him to attack the abuses of colonialism in Batouala. That affair was revived by scandal-seeking journalists after Batouala and the Goncourt made Maran famous (see Maran, “René Maran s’explique,” quoted in Onana, 82).

Batouala and the Prix Goncourt

In 1913 Maran began writing the novel that would make him famous, and he continued to work on it while his situation as a black colonial administrator—a “colonized colonizer” (Wilder, 162) --became increasingly difficult. By 1920, Batouala: véritable roman nègre was finally finished, and in June 1921 the novel was published by Albin Michel in Paris. But the big bang--which sent shock waves through France and the Empire and across the Atlantic--was to come on December 14, when the Académie Goncourt announced its prize for the best novel of the year. The Prix Goncourt, which has come to be considered the most prestigious prize in French literature, was only 18 years old when Maran received it. Nonetheless, it was already the subject of front-page news and thought by some to be “the only literary prize that really counts.”[4] Several previous Goncourts had been given to works of colonial and exoticist literature, a mode of writing that Maran aimed to alter radically.[5] Then as now, the Goncourt competition is a contact sport, involving active campaigning; it is a “prize fight.” On  December 14, 1921, after a sixth-round tie decision was resolved in Maran’s favor by the “preponderant vote” of the chairman, Batouala beat L’Epithalame by Jacques Chardonne (the pseudonym of Jacques Boutelleau, a right-wing author and head of a publishing house). Batouala’s victory was major news. One of the first articles reported that Maran was the first to win a Goncourt without even knowing that his book had been entered in the competition and without asking for it (“Palmarès littéraire,” 1).[6] As the New York Times Book Review put it a month later: “he will [not] know until two months have elapsed from the date of the award that he is the winner of the prize, so remote is his African place of residence from Paris …” (T. R. Y., 9).

Why did the Goncourt go to Batouala? The exoticist leanings of the Academy provide one possible answer. But another suggestion, of a political motivation, was actually confirmed by a member of the Academy, Gustave Geffroy, in 1923: “By giving the Goncourt Prize to a Negro, we wanted to honor a race devoted to France.” In other words, the prize was at least partially motivated by French gratitude for the service and sacrifice of 171,000 “tirailleurs sénégalais,” colonial conscripts--30,000 of whom were killed--during World War I (Geffroy, quoted Darnal, 77; see also Smith). A literary prize could hardly pay off the “debt of blood” that France owed Africa, but this admission of an extra-literary motive hints at the broad strokes with which racial issues were understood at the time. A prize (given in Paris) to a “black” novel (published in Paris), written by a French citizen from the Caribbean, was supposed, somehow, to help mollify the feelings of millions of black Africans: veterans, widows, and orphans.  

What was in this novel? What were its merits, and how did such an aura of  importance come to surround it? The text tells the story of an African chief (the eponymous hero), his puzzlement and outrage at the actions of the white colonizers, his sad involvement in a love triangle, and his eventual death from wounds inflicted by a panther. Maran himself pointed out one of the novel’s revolutionary properties in a letter to a friend, and it had to do with the way he handled language: “Songez donc: pas de petit nègre …” (“Think of it: no petit nègre—the pidgen French used as a lingua franca by colonial soldiers and abused by colonial French writers as a means of racial stereotyping.)[7] Occasionally—rather often—the African language (Banda) lends untranslated words to the dialogue and narration. This was as revolutionary as anything else in the novel. As Laurent Dubreuil points out, the extreme elegance of Maran’s French style seems intended to lubricate the entry of strange African words, thoughts, and customs into the body of the French language (Dubreuil, 143).

Looking strictly at the original 1921 edition--not the revised 1938 version that is used by most critics[8]--, it is clear that this was, from the beginning, a novel of rebellion against the very colonial order that Maran was employed to promote. Not on the level of action—Batouala does not raise an army against the French—but on the level of thought and expression. Batouala is not a happy colonial subject. The supposed discrepancy between the preface and the novel—invoked by nearly everyone who comments on Batouala[9]--is in fact vitiated (in both editions) by many passages, beginning with Batouala’s first reported thoughts about the white man: “They would do better to just go home, all of them.” (Batouala, 20). The novel contains stinging acts of verbal rebellion against the exploitation of Africans in World War I; an outraged African voice (Batouala’s) is transmitted through Maran’s use of free indirect discourse. His masterful use of this literary technique had the effect of collapsing the distinction between discours and récit (Hausser, 54), of making the imagined thoughts of an African village chief come to life in French.

Neither the style nor the plot of the novel itself attracted unusual amounts of comment at the time; it was the incendiary preface that set off both cheers and, overwhelmingly, howls of protest. Batouala went off like a “bomb” (Fabre, 170). Maran later said that it was in order to spark an official investigation that he wrote the preface (Onana, 82). Addressing himself to “civilization, the pride of Europeans,” Maran wrote, “You build your realm on dead bodies... You are living a lie. Everything you touch you consume” (Maran, Batouala, 11).[10] Batouala was a threat to “civilization,” to the notion that the French colonial mission civilisatrice was beneficial to all it touched. Maran described colonial functionaries as ignorant drunks and slackers (13). And he denounced the decimation of the people among whom he lived, the Banda, by a process of colonial extraction and exploitation that left them ruined after only seven years of contact with “civilization” (15-16).

The extremely “realistic” depiction of African culture (“with a Zolaesque capacity for parading details of filth and degradation and brutality,” such as “a barbarous and bestial orgy,” said the New York Times Book Review) may have distracted some readers from the protest—very much consonant with the preface—that Maran places in the mouth of his hero Batouala: “We are nothing but flesh out of which taxes may be ground. We are nothing but beasts of burden. Beasts? Not even that! … The white men are killing us slowly” (Batouala 1921, 64).  

Primitivism and art nègre

In what way(s) was Batouala a roman nègre? And what did it mean to claim that such a novel was “true” (véritable)? The subtitle véritable roman nègre has caught the eye of many readers, for good reasons. If Maran had labeled his book “véritable roman” (and stopped at that), the oxymoron would have been stark, yet clearly part of literary tradition: this is a true novel, this is truly something made up. But he did not stop there, and the word nègre changes everything. It is the blackness that he claims to be true; the novel is merely a conduit for that: this is, as the English translation states, a “true black novel.” “It’s copied, it’s real, it’s true,” Maran said in a letter (in Hommage, 137). On the other hand, the nègre in the roman could only be as véritable as the genre would permit. The truths that Maran sought to communicate could only be truth-effects, embedded in fiction.

Maran insists in the preface that everything in the novel is “objective” and that this is a “novel of impersonal observation” (10, 18). “It doesn’t even try to explain; it states” (10). Maran conceded that the novel may be exotic, “but,” he wrote, “this is exoticism that is lived, real, believed.” That is the “new note” that Batouala would bring to literature, as Maran said in a letter in June 1917 (quoted in Bouquet, 41). He felt the ethical burden of representing the abuses of colonialism that he had seen, in clear and compelling terms, while at the same time giving an accurate account of an African society (even if it was from his position as a colonizer, “stretched out on his chaise longue,” on his veranda, observing “these poor people” [10]).

Readers did not fail to appreciate the revolutionary nature of this “unprecedented fact,” “the entering of a Black into our literature”: “for the first time, with Batouala, it is a Black who evokes the cradle of his race” (Gillouin, 72-73).[11] The political implications of an emergent black literary voice did not escape comment, even in the Chambres des députés. It is ironic that, as Brent Edwards points out, Maran did not identify himself as a nègre in the preface, thus leaving this crucial element unstated in the book itself. But virtually every article in the press highlighted the fact of Maran’s race. If this was, as Edwards says, a rhetorical attempt “to erase his identity altogether,” it was undone by journalism (Edwards, 91).

If the word nègre in the title signaled, first and foremost, the irruption of the “black race” in French literature, Maran had to know that it evoked something quite different at the same time: the vogue of art nègre that had been percolating in Paris since before World War I and which exploded after the war. For some, it was a breath of fresh air: the collector Paul Guillaume declared that art nègre had saved a European art that was “menaced by extinction” (quoted in Blake, 1). For others, “negrification” and the idea of “Africa’s rise to global domination” were a threat to civilization.[12] 

Hostile critics like René Gillouin suspected that the Goncourt Academy was simply following “the snobism that makes fashionable, in our ‘progressive’ artistic or stylish circles, Negro sculpture, Negro jewelry, Negro legends, not to mention Negro dance, with which, I believe, the epidemic started” (Gillouin, 69). The transition “from the jazz band to the roman nègre” (i.e. Batouala) was immediately understood to be a small leap and the logical extension of the “invasion of our orchestras,” expositions, and dance-halls by black esthetics and rhythms; “the black novel had to have its turn” (Gaultier, 37). The newspaper Le Temps sniffed, “Batouala corresponds rather well to the Goncourtist esthetic and at the same time to the current vogue of art nègre” (Souday, 1). Henri Béraud, writing in Le Petit Parisien, observed that the novel has that “frightful, puerile, and animalistic art that is the beauty of the statues and masks of the Guillaume Collection…. This is true [véritable] African art…. ” (Béraud, 2).

There was an obvious confluence here: when Paul Guillaume, an advocate of primitivism, declared, “the intelligence of modern man (or woman) must be Negro” (quoted in Rose, 45), he opened a space in the mind of France (or showed that a space was already open) for a work like Batouala. There was now a certain place (circumscribed, certainly)—and a market--for African intelligence. As Tyler Stovall writes, “The French seemed to regard blackness as something of value, an attitude noticeably absent in the United States” (72). But more when the “blackness” was coming from visiting African Americans than from French colonial subjects themselves, it must be said. That is one reason why Batouala was so controversial: the space for African intelligence and intervention in France was both new and embattled, opened wider certainly by the sacrifice of the tirailleurs in the late war, but also haunted by the rising need to contain, control, and exploit the colonies (the Mise en valeur that minister of the colonies Albert Sarraut called for in his book of that title).

René Maran’s narrative strategy in Batouala linked primitivism and modernism. His way of “remapping the parameters of black modernity” (Edwards, 102) depended on what he called his “objective” reporting on Africa. But unlike the primitivism of Picasso or Braque, Maran’s art nègre did not simply import objects detached from their meaning and context; it was intensely engaged and political in its depiction of an African society in a state of crisis. “I reproduced, translated the natives’ grievances,” Maran explained (quoted in Edwards, 88). Batouala is “natural man.” He thinks a lot about scratching and other bodily functions. But when the narration states that Batouala’s mind was “free of all thoughts” (Batouala, 29), it is at odds with the long interior monologue we have just read: this “natural” man is thoughtful, and his thinking is highly political; he is much preoccupied by the incursions of the whites into his territory.

Banda culture and language entered the French novel, which in turn entered the global and diasporic debate on blackness. As Michel Fabre describes it, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance took Maran for an “‘African’ point of reference” (Fabre, 171)—as would nearly everyone in the years to come, and Batouala came to be known as the first “African” novel in French. This one book, then, created its own network of contacts and transmissions, spanning the Atlantic from north to south and east to west. Maran set this up (although he could not anticipate the path his work would take); the Goncourt Prize did the rest, propelling Batouala to global fame. In Maran’s use of the word nègre, then, two things are visible at once: on the one hand, a modern, political strategy (with a highly charged and radical future in the mouvements nègres of the 1920’s [see Dewitte]) and on the other, a willingness to participate in the rising vogue of esthetic blackness. Maran may have been riding the wave of art nègre, but he did so in order to accomplish something that Picasso and Braque did not have in mind: a critique of colonialism.

Prize Fights: René Maran, Battling Siki and the Triumph of the Black Man in France, 1922 (cont'd)


 This characterization of Pratt’s concept comes from Runstedtler, 134. Return to text

[2] The history of the transnational and transracial nature of professional boxing is far too complex to go into here (for detail, see Runstedtler). Return to text

[3] On the Affaire Mongo, information is scant and inconsistent. See Onana 46-50, 84; Dennis 82-84, 142; and Cameron, 7. Return to text

[4] Léon Daudet, writing in L’Action française, quoted in “Revue de presse, 2.”  Return to text

[5] Maran wrote: “Je ne fais pas de l’exoticisme à la L…, ni à la Loti. Les passages descriptifs pas plus que les autres ne sont imaginés. C’est du plaqué, du réel, du vécu.” Letter to Manoël Gahisto, quoted in Gahisto, 137.  Return to text

[6] The article reported that Maran’s friend Manoël Gahisto entered Batouala in the competition. Return to text

[7] Maran, letter to Manoël Gahisto, quoted in Onana, 58. On petit nègre in Batouala, see Dubreuil, 142-43. Return to text

[8] The 1921 edition is available in a flawed digital form from Barnes & Noble. Return to text

[9] See for example the comments of Charles Régismanset, on “the shocking contrast between the preface and the novel” (“Batouala, roman nègre,” 1). Return to text

[10] Unless otherwise noted, references to the novel will pertain to the 1921 edition. Return to text

[11] Batouala was in fact not the first work of Africanist literature written in French by a person of African descent: Ahmadou Mapaté Diagne’s pedagogical novella Les Trois volontés de Malic had been published a year earlier. Return to text

[12] Jean Renoir in his film Charleston (1927) spoofed “fears of Africa’s rise to global domination” … “the threat of ‘negrification’” (Blake, 89, 91). Return to text