Haiti, its Black revolution of 1791, and Black Haitian culture have captured the imagination of German writers from the early 1800s to the present day. As a result of prominent texts such as Heinrich von Kleist’s Die Verlobung in St. Domingo (1811) and Anna Seghers’, Hans Christoph Buch’s and Hubert Fichte’s relevant works, literary engagement with Haiti is today one of the most widely researched fields in German postcolonial and cross-cultural literary studies. Onana’s monograph, which is based on her PhD thesis at Berlin’s Humboldt University, follows in this tradition but also contributes interesting new angles by contextualizing Kleist’s novella with less prominent texts from the period, reading German and French literary engagement with the Haitian revolution from a comparative perspective, and showing how the earliest example of Haitian postcolonial literature emerges from the same discursive context, which is ultimately rooted in the transnational debate about slavery and humanity in the European Enlightenment.
Onana presents her monograph as a contribution to Postcolonial Studies which draws on Foucault-style discourse analysis while also taking the literariness of its sources seriously. Indeed, one of the merits of the study is its ability to demonstrate in detailed textual analysis the crucial significance of the “literarische Dimension” for “postkolonial orientierte Literaturwissenschaft” (202). Despite unifying discursive patterns literary narrative is shown to provide a multi-faceted picture of the period’s anthropological and socio-political thought.
After an overview of well-known postcolonial theory the study initially follows established research in giving a competent summary of the debate about ethnic difference and slavery in Enlightenment and early nineteenth-century philosophy and its literary adaptation (e.g. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, 1688). In line with received understanding Onana argues that such “littérature négrophile” is highly ambivalent in combining criticism of slavery with the claim that European values are universal and superior. Cultural criticism and anthropological discourse about Africans around 1800 oscillate uneasily between emerging colonial racism and the trope of the ‘noble savage,’ which privileges European ideals both “physisch und geistig” (41).
The main body of the monograph analyses literary engagement with the Haitian revolution in France, Germany, and Haiti itself. While the French public debate around 1800 mostly casts the slave uprising as a violent catastrophe and early literary adaptations also turn against the “Wunschbild des schwarzen Revolutionshelden als [End Page 456] des edlen ‘Wilden’ ” (64), Victor Hugo’s early novel Bug-Jargal (1826) is shown to be a much richer work with a complex revolutionary protagonist and a partial return to the Enlightenment tradition. On the one hand Hugo explores the socio-political background of the slave uprising and points obliquely to “die Dialektik von Unterdrückung und Gewalt in der eigenen Kultur”; on the other hand his novel reiterates clichés of African primitivism and immaturity by showing “wie die Schwarzen und Mulatten aufgrund kultureller, religiöser und anderer als natürlich ausgegebener Defizite ihre gerechte Sache ins Gegenteil verkehren” (90– 91). Such ambivalences are replicated in the German sources, which follow very much the same lines as the French.
The second set of case studies combines discussion of Kleist’s famous Die Verlobung in St. Domingo, which has seen a veritable explosion of cross-cultural and postcolonial research since the 1970s—Onana speaks of an “Interpretationskampf” (149)—, with analysis of largely unknown texts traditionally viewed as ‘Trivialliteratur’: Scenen der Liebe aus Amerikas heissen Zonen (1810) by popular late-Enlightenment author Johann Friedrich Ernst Albrecht, William der Neger (1819) by Caroline Auguste Fischer, whose works benefit from a recent reprint edition and feminist reappreciation, and the voluminous biographical novel Toussaint (1840) by Theodor Mügge, a liberal author of the Young German period. In Fischer’s novel the impossible love relationship between the educated Black protagonist and a white English woman becomes the catalyst of his successful involvement in the Haitian revolution; Fischer effectively casts “europäische Bildung und Kultur als Voraussetzung für die Befreiung der Sklaven der Kolonie” (106...