The reverse exoticism of Bernard Dadié, father of Ivorian literature

“How can you be Persian? », asked Montesquieu in the 18th century

The reverse exoticism of Bernard Dadié, father of Ivorian literature

“How can you be Persian? », asked Montesquieu in the 18th century. How can one be Parisian, New Yorker or Roman?, asks the same question, but in the 20th century and moreover on the cusp of African independence, the narrator imagined by Bernard Dadié in Un Nègre à Paris (1959), Boss of New York (1964) and The City Where No One Dies – Rome (1969). The recent reissue of these three works in pocket format by Présence Africaine allows us to rediscover the original pen of the man considered the father of Ivorian literature.

Born in 1916 in Assinie and died in 2019 in Abidjan at the canonical age of 103, Bernard Binlin Dadié is more broadly part of the generation of founders of French-speaking African literature, to which he greatly contributed with more than 'around twenty works. Poet, storyteller, novelist, playwright and essayist, he wrote texts such as Le Pagne noir (1955) or Climbié (1956), some of which have become classics included in the school curriculum in several African countries and studied throughout the world. .

A Negro in Paris, Boss of New York and The City Where No One Dies form a particular trilogy within this work. This series of chronicles features an African narrator taking advantage of his visits to large Western cities to observe the places, culture and customs of the natives: "The first person I see is an old man in suspenders chatting with a friend, then a worker on a bicycle, then two children,” he wrote upon his arrival in Paris.

This ethnographic posture is obviously reminiscent of that of European explorers – navigators, traders, soldiers, religious figures, etc. – whose travel relationships contributed so much to shaping and anchoring representations of Africa and Africans. Dadié clearly relishes this form of inverted exoticism and, in a falsely naive tone, does not hesitate to express in the same way remarks, questions, sometimes wonder, and to establish typologies, giving in when the moment comes and without the slightest qualms about generalization: “Everyone in this country smokes. They consume tobacco that they grow themselves. Logical individuals! The proportion of women smoking is higher than in our country. »

From fantasy to gravity

Constantly moving from detailed close-ups to a broader vision, he evokes in the form of skits subjects that are by turns light, such as the language of flowers, pets or the rhythm of life of the locals (“Pedestrians are the most in a hurry. You have to see them slipping through the cars and stopping suddenly. Wouldn't they have springs in their legs, springs wound up every morning?"), and deeper, like the importance monuments or the relationship of peoples to their history.

“I’m in Paris, I’m walking on Parisian soil. I look, white people everywhere; white employees. Nowhere is a Negro head. It’s definitely a white people’s country,” notes the narrator, preferring to arm himself with humor in the face of the condescending surprised reactions he arouses in public places, bars, airport waiting rooms, the metro.

But he also knows how to denounce the violence and alienation of an American society corrupted by racism: "I am leaving for the fabulous America, for the country of cowboys with easy revolver shots, for the continent from where a clamor around a Negro who is lynched for daring to look at, admire a white woman, or a Negro who is expelled from a University, a center of intelligence. A wonderful country of late pioneers. » The spicy fantasy of A Nègre in Paris, the first of the three books, thus gradually gives way, in the two other texts, to more seriousness.

We will also note the outdated nature of certain passages, in particular those concerning women and the art of seduction, which do not stand the test of time. But the audacity and originality of these literary sketches remain striking given their time of publication.

Bernard Dadié witnessed the historic shift in his country at the turn of the 1960s. An anti-colonial activist, he then became one of the political architects of sovereign Ivory Coast as minister of education. national then culture. We understand all the better his desire to reverse the old focus by developing an African discourse on Westerners. A necessarily biased and partial approach, which proves in passing that making the other a curiosity helps less with rapprochement than with distancing. And sets back the humanity of all.