NOT TO BE MISSED
"Noblesse d'Afrique", a novel by Hélène DE GOBINEAU
Paris: Fasquelle Editeurs, 1946. (164p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
It was by the thousands that young men from Western Africa joined the French army at the outbreak of World War II. Many never returned home, killed in action, dying in prisoner-of-war camps, or worst of all, slain by their own army when a liberated France turned its guns against her Black soldiers when they demanded their pensions and entitlements in the Thiaroye Camp . This dark leaf of French History has overshadowed the "Tirailleurs'" gallant contribution to the war, and African soldiers have received only scant attention by French authors over the years ; hence the interest of Noblesse d'Afrique [African virtues] by Hélène de Gobineau who joined in the war effort, first as a canteen lady in Paris' Gare de Lyon, and later as a volunteer assigned to POW colonial camps and hospitals where Black soldiers were kept under German guard.
Noblesse d'Afrique is especially interesting because it offers a thoughtful exposition of African soldiers in France, one that empathises with the plight of the young men interned far away from home, one that speaks from the heart. As Hélène de Gobineau's puts it: "I spent five years of war with the Mandinkas, Susus, Saracoles, Peuls, Wolofs, Serer, Baoule, Fons and Mossis ... without leaving the banks of the Seine River. I knew them unhappy, harassed, cut off from everything they loved, fighting against death. ... Slowly, very slowly I gained their trust. And I am sure that I now know much more about them than the restless reporter who crossed their country, impatient to visit everything; much more than the colonialist who is assuaging his conscience in believing that these men are inferior ... As far as I am concerned, I am only telling a few anecdotes similar to those every sister and voluntary aide could have told. And each of these stories expresses the same common values: nobility, generosity, courage, a sense of equality and justice...". (pp.9-10)
In contrast to the French troops who fought during the First World War, the engagement by the French during WW II was pretty short. It took hardly a month for Germany to secure the North of France and most of the French army ended up as POWs, including the African contingent that was, on the whole, kept in France. Unused to Europe's rigorous winters, many African soldiers fell victims of tuberculosis, a disease that killed thousands in army camps and hospitals. It is against this background that Hélène de Gobineau's stories unfold: stories that are not about well-known battles, but rather the art of retaining one's dignity in the face of insidious enemies such as, deprivation, injustices, despondency and death.
There is indeed some grandeur even in the most desperate and trivial attempts to do one's duty and to remain in charge of one's destiny: Fatoum asking to be photographed, "standing to attention when facing death on the morning of his passing"; (p.13); Diallo's refusal to abandon his comrade dying of TB, (p.68) or Sarr's belief that "to die is better than to live with the knowledge that justice has not been done to your dead brother" (p.41) are just a few examples of a firm determination to do the right thing. So too is Zemba's resolve to die. Prostrate with shock, he endlessly repeats: "I want to return to my country; nothing more" ,(p.49) and he wishes to die in order to free his soul for its last journey home. That, of course, runs contrary to the brief of the hospital's doctor whose main duty is to save his patient from himself. Thus his decision to tie him to his bed and to feed him on a drip: to his friends, however, tying down a man who has done no harm to anyone cannot be condoned and revolt is brewing in the ward. Who is to say, they argue, that keeping his soul trapped in his certifiable mind is better then letting life follow its course according to God's will and, ultimately, allowing Zemba's soul "to fly unfettered back to his mother-country, nothing more"? (p.52)
Hélène de Gobineau's collection of anecdotes is certainly a war story: but with a difference. It speaks relatively little of the war itself and, when it does so, it is only to highlight episodes that explain better the idiosyncrasies of the Black soldiers' experience: events often influenced, even determined by the racial prejudices of the time. They tell readers that it was not a coincidence that the Tirailleurs "were on the front line and died by the thousands" (p.10) when the German army struck. Nor was it by accident that "the Germans did put the Whites on one side and loaded them into waiting trucks while the Blacks were lined up against a wall on the other side, and tac...tac...tac...". (p.11) Black prisoners absconding at the end of the war and joining the Resistance also led to gruesome episodes and savage retaliation: "the Negroes, they shoot them; the civilians, they hang them; some they drowned...". (p.40) People were even segregated in the hour of death.
Although sober, the stories are never gloomy. They always reflect a fair, coherent, simple and pragmatic answer to situations that depict a wide range of issues confronting the Tirailleurs: the prostitute who swindles Zougara; Mademoiselle Marinette who allows Tanga to escape from the camp and hopes to marry him; the young Protestant proselytizer who attempts to convert Bazombé to his faith; the Catholic Sisters who do the same, hoping to save the dying in the nick of time and to offer their souls to God; Doumaroudou's wife's unfaithfulness; the funerals of Fatokama; Sarr's amulet; the Marabout who insults an officer in order to be thrown into jail where he can perform his daily prayers without being hassled by the Ward Sister. All these belong to anecdotes that shed light on the characters' aspirations and the way they see the world.
Telling one's story is of course related to the issue of communication, and the belief that French was the mother of all languages compounded the "prejudices of colour" that dominated the life of the Tirailleurs. The Mandinkas, Susus, Saracoles, Peuls and others African soldiers serving in the French army all spoke their own particular language and used a kind of 'pidgin- French' that could be understood by their officers. Little effort had ever been made by colonials to communicate with the African population beyond this basic level of intercourse. "In 1939, they hardly spoke French", Hélène de Gobineau says, "but in 1944, almost all of them could write, and their interest in learning should fill us with remorse for all the time lost in affording them with so little opportunity to educate themselves ... Some Whites poked fun at their way of speaking and mimicked it; yet it would have been so easy to teach them to speak French correctly." (p.28)
This poses a dilemma for the narrator who is split between a practice of which she disapproves and her desire to give a genuine account of her conversations with her interlocutors; thus, she confesses: " I blame myself for reproducing their way of speech in my narratives, keeping alive a practice I am objecting to, but I was afraid to lose the spontaneity of their sentences had I not transcribed them verbatim. My apologies to the well-educated Africans who will be shocked by my decision." (p.29) And some of the inmates of the POW camps were, indeed, very well educated. One would immediately think of the Senegalese writer Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was enrolled in the 59th Colonial Infantry Division in 1939, taken prisoner a year later, interned in various camps reserved for Black colonials and eventually released on medical grounds in 1942.
But for Hélène de Gobineau in the early 1940s, it is a man called Saer who dispelled conclusively the idées reçues entertained by her White compatriots about "their colonial subjects": "Saer, she says wore his distinction with poise, kept you at a distance with his smile, and his good education, coalescing with a touch of irony, always gave me the impression that he was making fun of me in the most considerate way. He was cultivated and well-read, but even so he pretended to be a peasant like the others. ... I could never learn where he had studied French and Arabic so perfectly ... for the fun of it, he would write, at the same time, an identical sentence in French with his right hand and in Arabic with his left hand." (p.140)
No doubt the author would have liked to learn more about this master of erudition but he was never forthcoming with new information about himself and only left behind a couple philosophical tales which conclude Hélène de Gobineau's book. Saer would remain a mystery to her, but the last words of his tales encapsulate not only his, but also a universal wisdom that is still at the heart of today's concern: "If someone takes, he also has to give: then everyone can be at peace." (p.163) Food for thought. And also a good reason to argue that it is now time for this instructive witness account of the war to come out of obscurity. Noblesse d'Afrique is definitely a book deserving a new run at the printer.
1. Hervé Mbouguen. "1er Décembre 1944": Le massacre du Camp de Thiaroye" Grioo.com. 23 Octobre 2003. [http://www.grioo.com/info991.html Sighted 12 August 2010]. See also Sembène Ousmane's film "Camp de Thiaroye" (1988).
2. While writing this review, I came across a new publication by Armelle Mabon titled "Prisonniers de guerre - 'indigènes': Visages oubliés de la France occupée" (Paris: La Découverte, 2010). A promising title that is, according to the publisher's blurb, dedicated to the 70 000 African prisoners incarcerated in the twentytwo "frontstalags" opened across in France after 1941.
In 2014, the Editions Présence Africaine re-published "Noblesse d'Afrique" (ISBN: 978-2-7087-0837-2). This new edition includes Hélène de Gobineau's text as well as fascinating knowledge about the author and her family. [Note added 23 April 2015].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities
Modified: 23 April 2015.