With its timely publication at the beginning of the Senghor centenary, János Riesz's monograph offers a most erudite and equally readable addition to the large corpus of scholarship on the Senegalese statesman and poet. Riesz's explicit aim is not to add yet another Senghor biography to the many existing ones but to trace the literary and historical field in which Senghor's personality, work, and ideas have been molded. Riesz designates this contextual field as "afrikanischer Aufbruch" in the twentieth century. "Aufbruch," best translated as "departure," implies a rupture with the old and striving for the new and stands for the growing self-awareness and process of political maturation of the African political avant-garde in the process of becoming an independent nation. Thus, the book starts with the situation in colonial Senegal at the time of Senghor's birth in 1906 and ends not with his death but with Senegal's independence in 1960.
In discussing the forces that shaped Senghor, the book can also be read as a historiography of colonial Senegal. The first chapters give detailed insight into the early phases of French colonial administration and politics in French West Africa and the wrestling by different indigenous groups for power within this setting. Central issues are the ambiguous role of Blaise Diagne, first Senegalese representative in the French National Assembly, and the recruitment of West African soldiers for the French army during World War I. Strangely, although Diagne was his political mentor, Senghor never publicly mentioned this important political figure, apparently because it was not opportune for Senghor's own career, as Diagne was later seen as an accomplice of the colonial system, Riesz explains. Similarly, in a much later phase of his life, when he had grown in political stature, Senghor dissociated himself from Lamine Gueye, his long-term ally and fellow-countryman in the French National Assembly after World War II. If I have any quarrels with Riesz's book, it is that in some of the historical parts he amasses so many facts and figures that the reader might lose the thread connecting them to the life and work of Léopold Sédar Senghor.
While one important part of the "African departure" was the formation of political forces that eventually brought forth political independence, the other part lay in the growing cultural consciousness. Riesz situates Senghor within the intellectual context of a multitude of influences: his early education through Catholic missionaries, which made him recognize the importance of African languages; his years in Paris together with Léon-Gontran Damas and Aimé Césaire, leading to the germination of Negritude; the ideas of Pan-Africanism, the Harlem Renaissance, and his friendship with Langston Hughes; movements such as surrealism, Marxism, and socialism; and the work of Leo Frobenius. The great merit of Riesz's undertaking is his quest to uncover the conflicting forces that affected Senghor as part of a specific group of African intellectuals at a specific time, and the often ambivalent responses these evoked in him. While Riesz takes great care [End Page 214] not to smooth out the unevenness in Senghor's personality and demeanor, he challenges any easy condemnation of his conciliatory stand (his "accord conciliant"); he also engages with Soyinka's revision of his "tigritude" polemic in his recent book on the "muse of forgiveness." What I find very illuminating is Riesz's method of contrasting statements of Senghor's public persona in his speeches, lectures, and essays with the feelings and apprehensions of his private persona in his poems. The sharp contrasts, conflicts, and ambivalences that this brings out opens astoundingly new perspectives on some Senghor classics.
The book is complemented by a combined chronology of the history of the Senegal and Senghor's life from 1659 (first French outpost in Saint-Louis) to Senghor's death in 2001 as well as by a selected bibliography on Senghor's life and work, the history of the Senegal, and francophone literature in West Africa...