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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 197-200

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Book Review

République et colonies: entre mémoire et histoire

République et colonies: entre mémoire et histoire, by Bernard Mouralis. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1999.

At this juncture, with the emergence of postcolonial theory as a determining paradigm for readings into the colonial encounter, and the literary and philosophical writing that it generated since its onset, the publication of République et colonies comes as a timely reminder of the pitfalls of speculative postulations based on generalizations that tend inevitably to lead to historical and epistemological distortions. The author himself needs no introduction: Les contre-littératures (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1975), Littérature et développement (Paris: Silex, 1984), L'Europe, l'Afrique et la folie (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1993) are familiar to most of us. However, République et colonies adds a new dimension to the works of Bernard Mouralis, for what we have here is really an essay on the history of ideas, delving into colonial theory and practice in order to throw light on its repercussions on contemporary political and cultural formulations, thus counterpoising colonialism with immigration and the postindependence situation. Its significance is manifold and draws equally from the author's forays into an unexplored archival terrain and his perceptive understanding of the questions he deals with, heightened throughout by an underlying exigency to grasp discursive configurations in relation to their habitus.

As the title suggests, the book is structured around considerations on two political principles: republic and colony. What the author attempts to highlight here is their correlation as enacted during French domination in West Africa from 1875 till 1960. At its point of departure lies what appears as an irreconcilable contradiction, a paradox, that surfaced particularly with the Third Republic, which allowed the convergence of these two opposing trends by simultaneously bringing about "the definitive consolidation of a republican regime" and "the conquest of an empire" (10; my trans.). Hence, while striving for democratization and social upliftment within the Hexagon, this Republican regime persisted in legitimizing procedures resulting in subjection and social and political discrimination in the colonies. However, rather than treating this apparent contrast in terms of a radical rift between metropolitan and colonial space, Mouralis believes there exists a "continuum," "a close imbrication linking colonial period with postcolonial period" (17). In his view, the fact that certain sections of West African and French society subscribed and continue to subscribe to the values of republicanism confirms this observation. [End Page 197]

In other words, the arguments posited in this essay thwart classical colonial historiography as expressed in the works of Sartre, Fanon, and Memmi. These philosophers writing at the peak of Third World nationalism depicted Western imperialism and the existential dilemma of the colonized in manichean terms, through the prism of the Prospero-Caliban paradigm, as total violence. For them the only possible resolution to the colonial situation lay in decolonization; independence, therefore, was seen as the ultimate objective of all political edification. However, it is not the purpose of the thesis developed here to refute the validity of these claims. Anticolonialism, we tend to forget, has a long history going back to Las Casas and the Spanish conquistadors. Thus, to put it succinctly, the four chapters of this book are essentially an attempt at reading the incongruities of the colonial enterprise through the dissonant comportment it fashioned, through the variegated responses it spawned.

The essay begins with contemporary France and examines the social and political procedures leading to what is called "the occultation of Franco-African memory." Current debates within French society on immigration and nationality (Reform Bill of 1993) and on the status of foreigners serve as a locus for investigating past history and the "common historical experience" that despite all violence "created links between the colonized and the colonizers" (35). Familiarity, obligation, solidarity are some concepts through which this relationship is explored. This perspective is supported by the argument that the conquest of Africa led to the realization that domination does not automatically confer power...


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