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  • The Noir Atlantic: Chester Himes and the Birth of the Francophone African Crime Novel by Pim Higginson
  • Grégory Pierrot
Pim Higginson. The Noir Atlantic: Chester Himes and the Birth of the Francophone African Crime Novel. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011. 216 pp.

France was the setting for Chester Himes’ well-known shift from protest fiction inspired by his literary model Richard Wright to the frantic detective [End Page 215] fiction that characterized the second half of his career. Marcel Duhamel, the founder of the Série Noire, himself suggested that Himes write noir for his book series, giving him pointers on how to approach the genre. Himes would write nine novels for the French market, where he soon gained the name recognition that had always escaped him in the United States. The French took Himes’ increasingly outrageous Harlem noir very seriously. So have many critics since, finding in it traces of the political commitment typical of his earlier protest fiction. Yet to Himes, the Série Noire novels were the expression of his finally getting “the handle to the joke” of living black in the Western world and learning to find it funny. Himes’ answer to the many pressures and oppressions brought to bear on his writing was to devote himself to what Pim Higginson dubs “the frivolous literary,” a writing that emphasizes undervalued notions such as “pleasure, entertainment, humor and profit” rather than the ethnographic, politically-driven fiction expected of black authors in the protest mold (4).

This way of navigating the demands of artistic existence as a black author between New York and Paris—two beacons not simply of black culture, but also of its inscription in, and appropriation, by white Western culture—are what made Himes, Higginson argues in the Introduction to his Noir Atlantic, the point of reference for noir made in Francophone Africa. With Himes as a compass rose, Higginson goes on to provide a loose map of African Francophone noir, dedicating his first chapter to the Senegalese author Abasse Nidone’s La Vie en Spirale (1984), the first African noir novel (eventually published in the Série Noire in 1998). Ndione’s novel which follows marijuana sellers and consumers in Senegal, remains the most popular African noir novel to date. It embodies a crucial shift in African literature; rather than follow the “utopian idealism motivating most earlier works” of African fiction, La Vie en spirale “demands the right to the frivolous, to the defiantly unproductive” (61). Chapter 2 explores Simon Njami’s Cercueil et Cie, a tongue-in-cheek, metafictional exploration of Himes’ relevance to Francophone African culture and its compulsory relationship with the Parisian cultural milieu. In this novel, Njami revives Himes’ playful borrowings and emphasizes their relevance to contemporary African contexts. Chapter 3 studies the evolution of Congolese author Achille Ngoye’s concerns with language in three novels published in the Série Noire. While his first novel uses the artificial argot typical of the Série Noire, Ngoye eventually breaks out of this linguistic mold, moving beyond the Série’s traditional erasure of race-inflected discourse in order to present a broader chorus of Francophone voices. In his fourth chapter, Higginson discusses the Congolese author Bolya Baenga, whose La Polyandre [End Page 216] takes readers’ expectations to task. The novel’s investigation into the titillating world of African polyandry comes in the guise of ethnographic writing, only to deconstruct its mechanisms and underline the active role played by informants in a form of discourse that appears to exclude them. Chapter 5 further considers African noir’s engagement with ethnographic expectations, but also with the misogyny endemic in noir fiction, through Aïda Diallo’s Kouty, mémoire de sang, a revenge story steeped in Malian ethnic strife. Diallo complicates the genre by asserting the possibility of female agency within the bounds of noir. Finally, Chapter 6 focuses on the widely recognized Cameroonian author Mongo Beti to discuss his eminently Himesian shift from the “ideological earnestness” of the political fiction of his beginnings in the mid-1950s to the noir novels he published near the end of his career in the 2000s. Higginson argues that Beti’s shift...


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pp. 215-217
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