- The Conte: Oral and Written Dynamics
This collection offers a dazzling array of studies on the tale in French, including chapters of interest to Africanists and Caribbeanists. The excellent introduction, “Contextualising the Oral-Written Dynamic in the French and Francophone conte,” explains current theories on the tale. Four sections contain thirteen essays: “The Oral-Written Dynamic in Early Modern France” (three), “Literary Appropriations and Transformations” (three), “Postcolonial Contexts” (three), and “storytelling in Contemporary France: Linguistic Strategies” (four).
“Postcolonial Contexts” includes “The Creole Folktale in the Writing of Lafcadio Hearn: An Aesthetic of Mediation” by Mary Gallagher, “Mastering the Word: Appropriations of the Conte Créole in Antillean Theory” by Maeve McCusker, and “The Politics of Orality and Allegory in the African conte” by Andy Stafford. The first and third essays deal with tales that pre-date the national era. The second is about a largely de facto colonial environment, so the term “postcolonial” for this section seems to be somewhat of a stretch for this section.
Gallagher offers an analysis of research by English wordsmith Lafcadio Hearn, who spent two years in Martinique where he collected creole tales. She emphasizes that his two collections of folktales preserved the version of creole spoken at the time. She adds that Hearn’s versions functions as an intermediary between the oral creole and written French as well as English.
McCusker examines theories emerging from the fiction of contemporary authors such as Raphaël Confiant and Patrick Chamoiseau. Drawing on stories for their works, they constructed the concept of “créolité.” She points out, however, that theorizing about these tales goes back to the cultural review Tropiques in 1942 (no. 3). Aimé Césaire and René Ménil introduced two articles with “Introduction [End Page 203] au folklore Martiniquais” (pp. 7–11). In all, the issue contained three contes collected by Hearn and Martinican teacher Gilbert Gratiant. McCusker cites the view of Césaire and Ménil that orality is not what counts in these stories. Rather, it is the content, “an expression of slave culture” that gives expression to the urgent needs of a starving people” (157). The author might also have mentioned that the stories offered criticism of Admiral Robert’s harsh Vichy regime that was missed by censors but obvious to Martinicans. They were starving in 1942 because of the Allied efforts to contain Robert’s warships and his 10,000 sailors occupying the island.
In the third article, Andy Stafford analyzes two well-known African tales, “Le chasseur et le boa” from the 1955 volume Le pagne noir by Bernard Dadié (Paris: Présence Africaine) and “Sarzan,” published by Birago Diop in the collection Les contes d’Amadou Koumba (Paris: Fasquelle, 1947). Stafford concludes that these deeply rooted stories “encode or dramatise political messages” (188).
This is a volume that is essential for anyone who conducts research on the tale, whether in French or other languages, and who needs to stay abreast of current trends in research on the genre.