- Littérature et temps colonial: métamorphoses du regard sur la Méditerranée et l’Afrique
Five years before Edward Said's landmark work Orientalismand a decade after Algerian independence, a group of researchers met in Algiers to study colonial literature and ideology. Integrating theoretical currents then transforming literary studies (Althusser, Goldmann, Barthes, and Kristeva), they produced an innovative and exciting work ( Revue algérienne des sciences juridiques économiques et politiques11.1, mars 1974). However, a robust field devoted to the study of colonial literature failed to develop. French and francophone students, reacting to a general lack of interest in works considered racist, paternalist, or apologetic, shunned colonial writers. Nevertheless, some who were part of this first project, like Jean-Robert Henry, persisted, and in the 1970s and 80s, Henry led French research into important questions of culture and politics in colonial contexts, and edited and authored several key texts.
Littérature et temps colonialpresents the work of thirty, multinational scholars who were united by Henry and Lucienne Martini in 1997. As might be expected, there is unevenness in a volume with so many contributions. Some articles are brief sketches of early research, of interest to the specialist, while others contain advanced readings of colonial texts for a wide academic audience. Among the latter, articles by Colette Dubois, Éric Savarèse, and Daniel Denis stand out. Dubois surveys French adventure novels and investigative journalism for sensational accounts of the Red Sea slave trade. Savarèse interrogates constructions of French-African difference in children's books (1930-62) and gives a theoretically sophisticated reading of the ideological currents that inform these texts. In a similar vein, Denis examines Third Republic textbooks to understand how exotic discourses combined with new debates [End Page 131]on national hygiene to produce a belief in the revitalizing qualities of the colonies for French youth.
North African subjects account for nearly half of the articles. Some offer new perspectives on familiar figures such as Isabelle Eberhardt, Albert Memmi, and Albert Camus (Danielle Marx-Scouras's rereading of critical possibilities in Camus's fiction is noteworthy), while others treat themes from the colonial "imaginary" such as the desert and violence. Jacques Frémeaux, Rosalia Bivona, and Charlotte de Montigny look at the desert in colonial texts, and Fabienne Le Houérou examines Henry de Monfreid's work and texts from Italian soldier-colonists in Ethiopia, the insabbiatto(stranded in the sand). Alain Mahé begins with the provocative observation that writings on colonial Algeria are "saturated" with violence before he turns to Saïd Guennoun (1887-1940), an Algerian writer and soldier who wrote intimate descriptions of anticolonial and intracommunal conflict. Zineb Ali-Benali examines Abdelkader Fikri and Robert Randau's vision of a different French Algeria or the "(im)possible futures for Algerians" (243). Two articles are outside of Africa. In the first, Arundhati Virmani contests Edward Said's reading of Kipling's Kim. The second, by Alain Guillemin, explores questions of language and nationalism in francophone Vietnamese literature.
Overall, a clear project does not emerge in this volume, and it lacks the range of other French collections on postcolonial questions such as Le mal de voir(1976) and D'un orient l'autre(1991). One wonders if the editors' call for pluralism, "All readings are valuable!," (16) did not take away needed focus. Nevertheless, Littérature et temps colonialis an important part of francophone efforts to rethink colonial literature and is part of a field that should be taken seriously by Anglo-American scholars In addition to the valuable introduction and articles, it includes reproductions of fascinating colonial iconography from the exhibition accompanying the conference and a summary of the conference's debates. This book will interest a broad audience in the field of postcolonial studies and historians of European imperialism.