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  • Le Grand Prix de littérature coloniale 1921–1938: lauréats, jugements, controverses, i: 1921–1929; ii: 1930–1938 par Vladimir Kapor
  • Peter Dunwoodie
Le Grand Prix de littérature coloniale 1921–1938: lauréats, jugements, controverses, i: 1921–1929; ii: 1930–1938. Textes choisis et présentés par Vladimir Kapor. (Autrement Mêmes, 127.) Paris: L’Harmattan, 2018. 206 + 242 pp., ill.

Vladimir Kapor has opted for a clear and manageable structure for his two volumes on the Grand Prix de littérature coloniale (1921–1929 and 1930–1938); the volumes are [End Page 487] published in the series Autrement Mêmes, which has proven to be a unique archive for researchers in the postcolonial field. The Introduction covers the politics behind such prizes (including debates around global versus regional awards), institutional support, winners, and the make-up and objectives of panels. Each prize-winner is then the subject of a brief biography, followed by a plot summary of the winning text: all of them are novels, with the exception of Roland Lebel’s thesis L’Afrique occidentale dans la littérature française depuis 1870 (Paris: É. Larose, 1925), Émile-Félix Gautier’s historical study Genséric, roi des Vandales (Paris: Payot, 1935), and the travelogues of Maurice Martin Du Gard (Le Voyage de Madagascar (Paris: Flammarion, 1934)), authors chosen specifically to enhance the profile and audience of the prize and the literature it promoted. Biography and summary are followed by a selection of extracts from critical reviews — and polemics, where relevant — from multiple sources. As these were published both in metropolitan France and in the colonies, they reflect markedly opposed opinions regarding the veracity of the representation, the position of the author vis-à-vis colonization, or the timeliness and impact of the publication. It quickly becomes clear that literary merit was often more easily accepted than the writer’s ideological position, since the documentary status of the novels was never questioned, and their propagandistic function was widely supported. After the scandal of the Goncourt of 1921 for René Maran’s anti-colonialist Batouala (Paris: Albin Michel), in particular, overt criticism of the colonial authorities, or a penchant too openly indigenophile, were often deemed ‘anti-French’. And while ‘il sait ce dont il parle’ or ‘il y a vécu longtemps’ was the ultimate accolade when promoting a prize-winner, arguments over the origins and credentials of the authors and the subject matter enlivened many of the annual awards, the best example being 1934’s eminently Parisian winner, Martin Du Gard. However, as Kapor stresses, from the founding of the Grand Prix littéraire de l’Algérie in 1920, via the Grand Prix de littérature coloniale and the off-shoots triggered by rivalry between ‘les Africains’ and ‘les Asiatiques’ (Prix Carthage, 1922; Maroc, 1925; Français d’Asie, 1930), the twin objectives were, from the outset, to sell the colonies to an indifferent (or hostile) French public, by the défense et illustration of France’s ‘civilizing mission’, and to engineer for colonial literature a niche in mainstream — which is to say, metropolitan — French literature. In order to document this long-neglected archive and the periodical literature supporting it, Kapor has consulted an impressive range of publications, and reproduces here an informative choice of extracts. While the periodicals La Vie, Le Petit Parisien, and Mercure de France are prominent in research on the colonial period and are readily accessible, unearthing material in neglected and often purely local places, such as Le Bulletin de la Société d’enseignement mutuel du Tonkin, Les Cahiers de la Santé publique, L’Éveil économique de l’Indochine, or Extrême Asie, demanded exceptional patience and tenacity. Given the period in question, no one will be surprised to learn that only European names figure in the lists of competitors, judges, prize-winners, and critics.

Peter Dunwoodie
Goldsmiths, University of London


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