Bernard Binlin Dadie's Observations

An African in Paris
By Bernard Binlin Dadie
Translated by Karen Hatch
(University of Illinois Press, 1994)

One Way: Bernard Dadie Observes America
By Bernard Binlin Dadie
Translated by Jo Patterson
(University of Illinois Press, 1994)

Reviewed by David Allen Case

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 1, September 1996 (pp. 90-92).

1996 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

To admit that one loves Paris is almost taboo for an American, for it is in effect an acknowledgement of what Frederick J. Pollack would call identification with power, and with the beauty that sometimes accompanies power. Paris stands for the convergence of power and beauty; the Eiffel Tower embodies "the delicacy and strength of lace." Americans are acculturated in a confused putative opposition to identification with power, and in a suspicion of the dependency of beauty on power. Paris. The name elicits sometimes guilty admiration, and sometimes resentment and scorn that are a disguise for admiration. The ability to identify openly with the gracefully aged power represented by Parisian culture marks an American at once as in some ways not American, as fair game for ostracism. How much more problematic, then, the impulse for an African colonial still under French rule, whom the French administration had (briefly) jailed for subversion, to admire and embrace Paris, the city at whose center stands a power-embodying phallus actually stolen from Africa (the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde). The temptation simply to spit upon and deride everything he saw there to gain the approval of politically aware African readers, and to confirm his own identity as African (i.e., not a lackey), a loyal citizen of the (literally) emerging Ivory Coast, must have been great for Bernard Binlin Dadie when he set out to write Un Negre a Paris in 1956-9.

In certain situations, nothing is more tempting than to fall into the mode of sweeping, puritanical denunciation of all the fruits of power and culture, especially Western power and culture. Read a few pages of Pierre Bourdieu's distinguished study Distinction, and you'll see what I mean. The Khmer Rouge (coincidentally?), also defining itself in opposition to lingering French colonial presence, took this impulse to its proper conclusions. Dadie, to his credit, refuses to fool himself, refuses to deny the tremendous admiration he has (at least in advance) for Parisians, and his tremendous excitement at the prospect of his first visit to their city.

In fact, the best writing in Un Negre a Paris comes in the first twenty pages, in a hilarious description of the extremes of the protagonist's exhilaration over having the plane ticket that (after some delay caused by bureaucratic obstructions) will take him to France:

To convince myself that all this is real, I'm forever taking the ticket out, examining it, and putting it back again. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've done this since yesterday when it was handed to me. But I'll keep on doing it until it's tired and begs for mercy. Sometimes all I do is touch it, to make sure it's there, where it should be, to make sure it hasn't flown away, to make sure ... You know as well as I do that it's not every day one has a ticket to Paris. You have to "be somebody" to go there, and, as you and I both know, I'm not "somebody."

Such candor is about as disarming as a narrative opening can get. Dadie allows his speaker to feel the full impact of simply the prospect of such a magical leap--intercontinental air trips must still have seemed magical in the fifties--from one end of the continuum of power to the other, from the absolute margins to what could still be construed as the epicenter, the center of all centers. The writing of An African in Paris turns out to be the process by which Dadie frees himself from the seduction of Paris, and thus the seduction of power. To do so, he engages his critical faculties to the full. The result is sometimes admirable and sometimes specious. Dadie's parody of the legends making up early French "history" has its moments, and things get even more entertaining when he approaches the present, especially in the satire of the unstable parliamentary system of the Fourth Republic -- about to yield to De Gaulle and the presidential system only four years after Dadie's visit. Dadie also manages (ironically?) to extract a moral lesson, or a word of encouragement, for Africans in what he sees in the great city:

Paris, her proud history before her, seems to say, "Courage, my friend. This is progress. I was once at the stage you are now. I knew Attila the Hun. I've been destroyed several times, but each time the Parisians have rolled up their sleeves, taken pickaxes and trowels in hand, and, with sweat on their brows, seen the buildings appear once again, stone by stone. You may think I'm old and cold-blooded. Wrong. My blood is as warm as that of the people who live in the tropics."

Unfortunately, the book includes many far less fine moments, including a plethora of anti-feminist remarks. We learn that Parisian women "love playing tricks"; Dadie also offers the shocking observation that they take pains with their appearance. One such woman is called "A typical female--that is a woman who makes you bleed simply to give you something to do to take your mind off her." If you think this makes little sense, you are right. The French text indicates that she wounds in order to occupy herself.

This is not the only place where Karen Hatch's translation seems careless. At the very beginning, a quote from the Gospels is botched: A ceux qui n'ont rien il leur sera ote meme le peu qu'ils ont is pretty much the same thing in English: from those who have nothing, even the little that they have will be taken away. Hatch renders it as "Those who fall behind will find even their skin taken away." Could she have thought that peu was a misprint for peau (skin)? Where are editors when you need them? Elsewhere, flaner (to stroll through the city) is translated as "browse." Some of Dadie's striking formulations are mangled: L'homme peut ainsi se definir: un etre cherchant constamment a se faire distinguer, turns in to "This way the people could tell right off who they [the aristos] were--creatures always searching for a way to distinguish themselves." Hatch reduces a characterization of the human in general to a facile cut at the nobility in particular; Dadie knows well enough how the rest of us struggle for distinction! Give him that much credit. The Theatre du Chatelet inexplicably becomes "the Chatelet Prison." And the elegant reversal of le roi, ses familles, les amis de ses familles, ou les familles de ses amis (a list of those whose idleness had to be supported by taxes on the lower classes) turns into the shapeless "the king and his relatives, the friends of those relatives and even their families." Would such carelessness be permitted if the author in question were Marguerite Yourcenar, Herve Guibert, or Amin Malouf?

Unfortunately, for me, Dadie is not a writer to rank with the above-named. He can be tiresome. He repeats earlier observations for whole sentences at a time at various points in the book, as though he himself had not troubled to re-read and edit it: I cite as an example his ruminations on the manners of those riding the Metro. The English translation cannot be blamed for everything. As a chapter opening, "The amount of salt used in this country is frightening" is itself a bit scary. But An African in Paris is very much worth reading, if not in its entirety, then for the opening and isolated passages further on.

The same thing cannot be said about One Way: Bernard Dadie Observes America, first published in 1964 as Patron de New York. Here the author attempts to repeat the success of the African tourist formula and profit from the opportunities offered by his position as the first Minister of Culture for the Ivory Coast. Dadie went to Paris as a native speaker of French, as one who had mastered French literature and French culture, but he came to New York without knowing any English besides "Yes" and "No." The good humor he maintains in Paris fails him in One Way; all of his "observations" seem crude generalizations: "I will often have occasion to contemplate that new species, the American woman, who lords it over the whitened skulls of blacks." Yes. That describes all the American women I know. "How can you love in a country where each person has his own fan, reading light, and easy chair?" Well.... And the ethnocentrism, the racism, if you will, of remarks like the following is to me intolerable: "Without blacks, who are the life of this country, it would be quieter than a cemetery, a hell where people would spend all their time studying and consulting flow charts and reports." In other words, white men can't jump.