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Le rire européen

Alastair B. Duncan
Anne Chamayou

Chapitre V. Europe - Afrique (et retour)

Something to Laugh About? Representations of Europe in Francophone African Cinema and Literature, 1954-1974

David Murphy et Aedín Ní Loingsigh

Texte intégral

  • 1 To cite just two examples, see Raymond Bachollet et al. eds, Négripub: l’image des noirs dans la pu (...)

1The history of slavery, colonisation and neocolonial dependency, which have scarred the relationship between Europe and Africa for centuries, scarcely appears an appropriate subject for a volume on laughter. This is not to claim that it is impossible to derive comedy from these contexts but rather to acknowledge the racially and ideologically charged symbolic order in which comic representations of Africans have been forged. In the sphere of representation, the uneven terms of exchange between Europe and Africa have often been translated into the anxious repetition of stereotypes of African animality, backwardness and primal sexuality or, more particularly, in the case of North Africa, the image of the ‘devious’ Arab. Europe’s stereotypical representations of Africa have now been subjected to several decades of systematic scholarly analysis, which has revealed that –from a contemporary, postcolonial perspective– there is little to laugh about in such imagery1. Homi K. Bhabha, the influential postcolonial critic, has argued that, far from underlining the absolute dominance of Europe during the colonial era, the excessive nature of colonial stereotyping of Africans (and the colonised more widely) is illustrative of the deep anxiety underlying this form of representation: if stereotypes of Africans were so excessive in form and so widely circulated, then it is because they were required to reinforce Europe’s sense of its own superiority. Paradoxically, however, their very excess reveals the fragile ground on which such claims to dominance rested. For Bhabha, the ‘ambivalence’ of colonial stereotyping lays bare the fault lines in colonial authority and allows the postcolonial critic to deconstruct the hierarchies that legitimated European rule. Although Bhabha’s claims regarding the extent to which this questioning is capable of undermining colonial authority in turn seem somewhat excessive, his analysis of such images proves particularly useful when directed towards the ways in which a decolonised Africa has sought to represent Europe, often pushing stereotypical imagery towards ever greater excess in order to ridicule its desire for legitimacy.

  • 2 Alice Conklin makes this point in relation to the study of French colonial history in her landmark (...)

2Criticism of work by African filmmakers and writers has identified the subversion of colonial stereotyping through the use of irony and satire as key strategies of postcolonial African narratives but there has been little sustained analysis of this work as a specifically comic vision of postcolonial relations. The aim of this article is thus to sketch out some of the key thematic, stylistic and generic features of African texts from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s that have used comedy either to laugh at Europeans in Africa or to laugh at not only white Europeans but also Africans in Europe. We emphasise this duality, for any attempt to deconstruct the binary oppositions that have underpinned racial hierarchies must recognise the ways in which ‘over there’ is also part of ‘over here’: European actions in Africa are not solely a part of African history but are also an integral component of European history and culture, just as Africans in Europe belong simultaneously to African and European contexts2.

3In order to explore these complex, interconnected histories, the article is divided into two main sections, ‘Europe in Africa’ and ‘Africa in Europe’, which sketch some of the strategies adopted by African writers and filmmakers who present the encounter between Africa and Europe as a source of laughter. We do not wish to present such tactics as culturally specific or to imply that European, or more specifically French artists do not also adopt such strategies successfully. Indeed, to posit a unitary African perspective against which one might oppose a European one is deeply misguided. Africa is constituted of over fifty countries and there are major social, cultural and political differences between different regions, not least between the predominantly Arabo-Berber peoples of North Africa and the black population south of the Sahara (differences that it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyse in any detail). Equally, Europe has a long exoticist tradition of humour based on juxtaposition and displacement, ranging from Montaigne in his essay ‘Des Cannibales’ through to Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721) and, more recently, the pioneering work of the great French ethnographic film director Jean Rouch –not least his wonderful film Petit à petit (1969)– in which the ‘exotic’ traits of faraway peoples are used to cast an ironic light on France itself.

  • 3 Linda Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge: Theory and Politics of Irony (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), (...)

4Needless to say a chapter of this kind –even with its focus on a relatively limited period– cannot claim to provide comprehensive coverage of relevant texts. Instead our aim is to examine how such strategies as reappropriation of stereotype, inversion of laughter’s usual targets, self-deprecation and black humour provide a fundamental comic lesson that at once highlights the tensions underlying encounters between France and (formerly) colonised Africans and points to their potential resolution through shared laughter. In our focus on films and novels from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, we also aim to explore the ways in which laughter might be seen as a ‘risky business’, to use Linda Hutcheon’s terms, not just discursively but also ‘psychologically’ for many of the main protagonists in these narratives3. Comedy may open a space in which the boundaries of social, cultural and political relationships, as well as the discourses that support them, can be questioned but stepping into this uncharted territory creates its own dangers. For, as we shall illustrate in several of our case studies, beneath many instances of apparently ‘healthy’ laughter lurks the potential for madness and hysteria, which take us from the realm of the comic to the tragic.


5In his debut novel, Le Passé simple (1954), the late Moroccan author Driss Chraïbi lays out an extraordinarily rich and complex vision of the assimilé, the colonised intellectual who has been schooled in the French tradition. As with other African authors, such as the Senegalese Cheikh Hamidou Kane in his compelling text, L’Aventure ambiguë (1961), Chraïbi explores the torment of being caught between two worlds, two modes of thought, of perception, and of feeling. However, unlike Kane, Chraïbi’s vision is darkly comic, and the wit and intelligence of the semi-autobiographical protagonist, the precocious lycéen Driss, is used to mock the simplistic identities that colonial society attempts to impose upon him:

  • 4 Driss Chraïbi, Le Passé simple (1954; Paris: Folio, 1993), p. 202. Comedy remained central to Chraï (...)

Ce matin, en me rendant ici, j’ai rencontré un Américain de la Military Police. Il arrêta sa Jeep. «Toi Français?» me demanda-t-il. «Non», répondis-je: «Arabe habillé en Français.» «Then... où sont Arabes habillés en Arabes, parlant arabe et... » J’étendis la main en direction du vieux cimetière musulman. «Par là»4.

  • 5 Nicholas Harrison, Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction (Oxford: Polity (...)
  • 6 Mireille Rosello, Declining the Stereotype: Ethnicity and Representation in French Cultures (Hanove (...)
  • 7 Rosello, p. 43.

6Nicholas Harrison brilliantly analyses the ways in which Chraïbi’s text plays with notions of ‘representativity’5. In the passage just cited, Driss acknowledges that he is not French but refuses to be cast as a ‘stereotypical Arab’ and insists instead on his radical ‘in-betweenness’. As Harrison convincingly argues, Driss (and, by extension, Chraïbi) are rather too hasty in consigning ‘traditional’ Arab culture to the graveyard but this strategy must be viewed within the context of the novel’s consistent and humorous efforts to undermine the supposed stereotypical preconceptions of its imagined French readership. In order to do this Chraïbi uses humour so as, in Mireille Rosello’s terms, ‘to operate a reversal that is also a form of overbidding’. This ‘counter double mimesis’, as Rosello qualifies such comic strategies, allows Chraïbi to play humorously with clichéd images of his culture and at the same time ‘insert an element of critique within the congealed stereotype’6. For example, in his hilarious school essay, Driss compiles a list (lists being a particular version of stereotypes’‘hypnotic power of repetition’7) of the characteristics associated with classic colonial-era narratives about Morocco –‘le soleil, le couscous, les métèques’– which soon becomes a general parody of the exoticist tendencies of a certain type of French writing: ‘les cocotiers, les bananiers, les flèches empoisonnées, les Indiens, Pluto, Tarzan, le Capitaine Cook’ (PS, p. 205-206). Driss believes that the French perceive him as a ‘representative native’ and his response is to appear to confirm, or perform, such views, whilst clearly undermining them through his use of counter-stereotypical strategies. As he writes in the essay cited above:

Je n’ignore point, messieurs les examinateurs, qu’une copie d’élève doit être anonyme, exempte de signature, nom, prénom ou marque propre à en faire reconnaître l’auteur. Je n’ignore point non plus cependant qu’une toile révèle aisément le peintre. C’est dire qu’il y a quelque temps déjà que vous avez percé ma personnalité: je suis arabe. (PS, p. 207)

7There is no doubt that using stereotypes in the manner that Chraïbi does is somewhat precarious, for in repeating the stereotypes of colonial and nationalist discourses he arguably risks reinforcing them at some level. Indeed, Chraïbi came under attack from various quarters for his depiction of Moroccan society and, as will be illustrated below in relation to his subsequent novel, Les Boucs, this meant the author was only too aware of the dangers inherent in the very process of literary ‘representation’. However, through the character of Driss, Chraïbi seeks to demonstrate that colonial society and colonised/coloniser relationships invariably function within a stereotypical symbolic order that is often self-perpetuating: countering clichéd French views of ‘Arab’ identity involves projecting an ‘auto-stereotypical’ view of self and/or stereotyping the dominant other. Undermining this reality effectively, as Chraïbi does, involves ridiculing stereotypes by performing and excessively repeating them in a manner that is comic but, more importantly, that rejects the idea that there is anything serious or credible about notions of fixed identity be they ‘French’ or ‘Arab’.

  • 8 Mongo Beti, Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1956), p. 11.

8If the comedy of Chraïbi’s novel is derived primarily from its protagonist’s hyper-intelligence, then Mongo Beti’s Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956) invites laughter at the gap between perception and ‘reality’ through the naivety of its anonymous narrator-protagonist, the African cook of a Catholic missionary priest. Throughout the cook’s journal, which constitutes the text’s narrative, ‘le Révérend Père Drumont’ is consistently referred to as R.P.S. (Révérend Père Supérieur), the insistent repetition of these ‘abstract’ initials both signalling the priest’s superiority and simultaneously undermining it through its comedic excess. Essentially, Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba is a satire of this Catholic priest’s attempts to spread his religion to the animist people of the ‘forêt’ in 1930s equatorial Africa. This misguided ‘Christ’ leaves his missionary base in the town of Bomba to engage in a tour of previously established churches in the surrounding region only to find that the ‘faithful’, and in particular the ‘cathéchistes’ whom he had left in charge, have reverted to pre-existing religious practices and many have married more than one wife. The text’s comedy emerges from the discordance between the cook’s absolute belief in his employer and his naïve understanding of the place of Catholicism within his society. On the very opening page of the novel, the cook describes how, prompted by his father, he had led the children of his home village to believe that R.P.S. was in fact Jesus Christ: ‘même barbe, même soutane, même cordon au niveau de la ceinture’8. From the outset then a clear process of ‘misrecognition’ is established:

Jésus-Christ... oh! je crois bien qu’il n’y a pas blasphème... Il mérite bien ce nom, cet éloge innocent de petits enfants. Un homme qui a réussi à imposer la foi. à rendre les gens quotidiennement bons chrétiens. Souvent malgré eux. Un homme autoritaire. Un homme terrible. Un père... Jésus-Christ. (PC, p. 13)

9Stressing the priest’s authoritarian role, the cook is oblivious to the irony of turning people into ‘bon chrétiens... malgré eux’. Essentially, Catholicism is perceived by the Africans in the story as yet another aspect of European colonialism with which they attempt to find a form of accommodation: this extends to the cook himself who finds work with the R.P.S. and appears to respect him without himself possessing any clear understanding of ‘faith’. The cook is at times a bemused onlooker who cannot comprehend the priest’s actions, which occasionally leads him to laugh at his ‘superior’. This comic bemusement is mirrored in many ways by the reaction of the villagers that they meet on their trip: however, incidents that make the cook laugh at R.P.S. in his ‘home’ context inspire dismay in him when they travel through the ‘backward’ villages: these rural people do not share the cook’s urban/European sophistication (or so he likes to think). In the first village where the pair stop there is little evidence that Catholic practices have become embedded, a fact that prompts the cook to declare: ‘à mon avis, Dieu lui-même devrait envoyer un signe à ces gens pour les remettre dans la bonne voie, un malheur collectif ou... Je ne sais pas, moi, quelque chose d’ exemplaire’(PC, p. 26). As we saw in the case of Le Passé simple, Beti’s strategy of self-consciously embracing a classic colonial stereotype of the African, in this case the childlike, unthreatening naivety of the cook, is not without risk of backfiring and bolstering the very image it seeks to disprove. However, Beti’s undeniable comedic strengths mean that rather than simply mimicking, or performing stereotypes, his character is used to unmask the distortions of stereotypical discourse. Ultimately it is laughter that exposes the ignorant and ridiculous nature of the cook’s uncritical adoption of a colonial viewpoint that dismisses the value of the culture of the ‘forêt’: if there exist childlike and naïve Africans for Mongo Beti, they are precisely not the rural peoples of the forest but rather those who embrace European values unquestioningly.

  • 9 Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Paris: Seuil, 1968).

10Yambo Ouologuem’s seminal text Le Devoir de violence (1968) is a violent, complex and darkly comic narrative that challenges the received ideas of African literary nationalism and its reliance on the simplistic opposition between the ‘races’ of Africa and the West9. The novel is thus a powerful post colonial critique of the construction of oneself as other, of the adoption of an identity forged in Europe. Through the novel’s distinctive tone, Ouologuem takes pleasure in subverting both received African visions of an idealised past (the fictitious African kingdom of Nakem has always been ruled by a blood thirsty dynasty) and received European visions of the continent. For example, through the character of Fritz Shrobénius, Ouologuem satirises the work of the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, one of the main inspirations of the influential black cultural movement, Negritude. Shrobénius is presented to the reader as a comically naive figure who comes to Nakem in search of the exotic, believing that ‘la vie africaine était art pur’ (DV, p. 102). Saïf ben Isaac El Héït, the ruler of Nakem, is quick to see the commercial potential of this European taste for ‘authentic’ African art:

Déjà, l’acquisition des masques anciens était devenue problématique depuis que Shrobénius et les missionaires connurent le bonheur d’en acquérir en quantité. Saïf donc –et la pratique est courante de nos jours encore– fit enterrer des quintaux de masques hâtivement exécutés à la ressemblance des originaux, les engloutissant dans des mares, marais, étangs, marécages, lacs, limons –quitte à les exhumer quelque temps après, les vendant aux curieux et profanes à prix d’or. Ils étaient, ces masques, vieux de trois ans, chargés, disait-on, du poids de quatre siècles de civilisation. (DV, p. 112; emphasis in original)

11In this passage, Ouologuem satirises Europe’s desire for an authentic Africa that it can purchase through cultural artefacts such as masks and sculptures.

  • 10 Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge, p. 17.

12The daring of Ouologuem’s comic techniques is evident when we examine more closely the risks involved in it. On the one hand, his ridiculing of Europe through Saïf’s clever opportunism seems to suggest that the former coloniser is incapable of distinguishing between falsified or ‘fake’ culture and so-called ‘authentic’ culture. This strategy could, therefore, be construed as a classic example of the superiority theory of humour whereby laughter becomes an expression of one person’s presumed superiority over a ridiculed inferior. In other words, ‘even while provoking laughter, irony invokes notions of hierarchy and subordination, judgement and perhaps even moral superiority’10. However, Ouologuem is not content simply to lord it over ‘unwitting’ Europeans by highlighting their naivety and in effect simply inverting the usual producers and targets of insensitive colonial stereotypes. He is instead running a double risk for his double-edged humour can also be seen to target those Africans who willingly ‘commodify’ and ‘stage’ their culture for those who are not interested in seeing beyond stereotypes. Ultimately, the risk pays off as Ouologuem’s ability to provide an opportunity for African and European readers alike to share the joke points to a potential for a ‘serious’ postcolonial dialogue that eschews both condescension and derision.

13As well as these literary texts, two remarkable Senegalese films of the early 1970s illustrate the use of ironic juxtaposition and scathing satire in African depictions of Europe. Djibril Diop Mambety’s experimental film, Touki Bouki (1973), presents in oniric (and at times nightmarish) fashion the narrative of a young Senegalese couple Mory and Anta who long to exchange the poverty of their surroundings for the glamour and prosperity of an idealised France. With no direct knowledge of the former imperial centre, their vision of France appears to have been shaped by floating cultural signifiers, such as films and popular songs, whose idealised visions they interpret literally. For example, the film makes non-diegetic use of the classic French songs ‘Paris, Paris, Paris (c’est sur la terre un coin du paradis)’ by Mado Robin and ‘J’ai deux amours, la France et ma patrie’ by Josephine Baker to act as an ironic commentary on the action –namely, the attempts by the two main characters to steal enough money to pay for the voyage to France. In particular, the jaunty, light-hearted nature of the Robin song constitutes a comic refrain designed to make the spectator laugh but its consistent repetition is deliberately excessive and, in the end, potentially grating. When the film finally introduces the spectator to white European characters –on the boat in which Mory and Anta hope to make their escape– they are grotesque caricatures whose mouthing of racist stereotypes (‘[les Africains] sont de grands enfants’; ‘l’art africain est une plaisanterie inventée par les journalistes’), in another illustration of the risk of laughter, verges on the comic. The only other white character is the ‘wild boy’, wrapped in a loin cloth, who appears to have made the reverse journey to the young Senegalese couple: having abandoned ‘modern’ society, he now lives in the ‘bush’ where his laughing, shrieking persona acts as an oblique warning to Mory and Anta of the nightmare that their dream may well become. Through his eschewal of realism, Mambety attempts to explore and to undermine the ‘misrepresentation’ involved in African and European perceptions of each other. However, no reconciliation is possible and the film concludes with a ‘refusal’ of Europe, as in the midst of the confusing final montage, complete with discordant sound track, we see Mory running frantically through the streets of Dakar away from the port: indeed, the final sequences of the film illustrate the trauma and possibly even insanity that await those who seek to question received notions of identity. The film’s darkly comic and often surreal vision of life in the post colony finally teeters into hysteria: once again, laughter and madness remain bound together inextricably.

14Ousmane Sembene’s Xala (1974) is a searing Brechtian comedy on the nature of the transfer of power from Europe to Africa. In the film’s forceful opening sequence, a group of African businessmen chase their white French counterparts from the Dakar Chamber of Commerce, at the same time removing all signs of French colonial power: a statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, and a pair of jack-boots, symbolising French colonial domination in Africa. The first scenes on the steps of the Chamber are shot from a low angle. This is an ‘heroic’ moment and the crowd, whose viewpoint the camera adopts, looks up at its leaders in respect and admiration. However, what Sembene sees as the true nature of this takeover is shown in the very next scene. The cameras have moved back to a higher, more remote angle as the crowd, in whose name the businessmen had seemingly been acting, are pushed back by the police, led by their white commander. In the space cleared around the Chamber appear Dupont-Durand (the ‘representative’ Frenchman) and a white companion, both of whom had been ejected from the Chamber in the previous scene. The African businessmen’s struggle for control of the Chamber had required the support of the people but, now that this has been achieved, the former colonial powers resurface, filling once more, both literally and metaphorically, the space that the people had momentarily occupied. Dupont-Durand and his partner distribute the briefcases full of money to the members of the Chamber, who are now dressed in Western suits.

15There are elements of slapstick and farce in the exaggerated and wilfully ‘non-realistic’ mode in which these sequences are played out. However, for all the comedy of this scene, this is the disturbing reality of African independence as Sembene sees it. In the opening section, the businessmen’s so-called revolution was presented in terms of a popular mass movement, but all that has happened is that the former colonial powers have retreated into a murkier but equally powerful form of economic control. In a startling image of this neocolonial situation, we see Dupont-Durand, the symbol of French power in Africa, standing silently but contentedly behind the President of the Chamber when he rises to speak. In the opening scene, he was the enemy, but now he has become the President’s personal adviser. In the same shot, on the wall behind Dupont-Durand, we see a political map of Africa, a symbol of the European division and control of the continent. In this shot, African independence is portrayed, not as a break with the colonial past, but rather as a continuation of European domination in new and subtler forms. The laughter here derives from the bleak comedy of the satirist who deliberately eschews formal realism as the ‘reality’ of neocolonial situation is so grotesque that only non-representative aesthetic forms can convey it.


  • 11 Johannes Fabian, Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa (Berkele (...)

16If in Touki Bouki and Xala the longing for a romanticised Europe –whether expressed in the desire to travel there or to replicate its political and cultural practices in post-independence Africa– is seen as a source for mocking, even gently, the misplaced aspirations of Africans, Bernard Dadié’s fictionalised and light-hearted travelogue Un Nègre à Paris (1959) shifts the geography of African laughter in important ways. For here the colonised redirects the ethnographic gaze of European travel writing and ‘laughs back’ at the coloniser in the very heart of empire. In the text, Dadié uses irony for the classic purpose of saying one thing and meaning another. In this way, the African author in Paris reveals how his double vision can be exploited more effectively to question fundamental features of European colonial travel writing on Africa, including humour and its significance. As Johannes Fabian argues, by framing their understanding of African culture within the terms of European conceptions of mirth, colonial travel writers ultimately betray not only the assumed superiority of their own cultural origins but also their singular lack of sensitivity and comprehension11. Dadié, on the other hand, uses humour to expose the contradictions of French culture and undermine its claims to cultural progress and intellectual authority:

  • 12 Bernard Dadié, Un Nègre à Paris (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1959), p. 154.

Le Parisien, tout comme nous, mangeait avec les doigts; mais si mal mon ami. Tu sais il y a toute une étiquette lorsqu’on mange avec les doigts: ne pas les lécher après chaque bouchée, ne pas être porté sur la viande ou le poisson [...] On avait beau dire à notre homme: «Ne ronge point les os avec les dents; ne les décharne pas avec les ongles [...]», l’on remarquait chaque fois des entorses à la règle. On lui mit alors la fourchette entre les doigts et depuis il ne sait même plus tenir un os... Le pauvre!12.

  • 13 Fabian, p. 101.

17Of course by suggesting that the rules of etiquette surrounding African practices of eating with one’s hands are too sophisticated for the unfortunate French to master Dadié is deftly and humorously attempting to ‘correct’ the stereotype of the ‘uncivilised’ African. However, the indirect nature in which the texts deals with negative views of French society, and the preference for gentle rather than excoriating satire, mean that its humour is not biting; rather, it is deployed in order to lead metropolitan readers into critical reflection about their own cultural traditions and their perceptions of Africa and its culture. Dadié’s ability to relativise stereotypes, and essentially neutralise their impact, is also a lesson in cultural tolerance targeted at both coloniser and colonised alike. Finally, Dadié’s self-deprecating wit and his unquestionable knowledge of and admiration for French culture are in direct contrast to European colonial travel writers in Africa who failed to embrace the richness of African culture and who, according to Fabian, ‘were much too concerned with maintaining distance and decorum to give themselves over to the joys of shared laughter’13.

  • 14 Driss Chraïbi, Les Boucs (1955; Paris: Denoël, 1982), p. 162.

18Driss Chraïbi’s second novel, Les Boucs (1955), shifts the focus of representation from the relatively privileged traveller/tourist of Dadié’s text to the voiceless and nameless North African immigrant workers in postwar France. In the wake of the polemic that had greeted Le Passé simple, the author displays a profound wariness of any desire for literary ‘representativity’ in Les Boucs. The novel’s protagonist-narrator, Yalann Waldik is an author who has an ambiguous relationship with a group of North African immigrant workers, the ‘boucs’ of the title. Although he is an educated intellectual, he is subjected to the same racism as these workers: to the French, he is part of an undifferentiated group of ‘Arabs’, which forces him (like Driss in Le Passé simple) into a tramautic and divided identity caught at the intersection of two social groups to which he can never fully belong: ‘Boire, je dois boire... Boire et tuer en moi tout espoir de rachat et rester un schéma de Bicot’.14 Waldik hopes to publish a manuscript he has written about the experiences of the oppressed and almost invisible ‘Arab’ minority, extracts of which, it is implied, we are reading. However, this mise en abyme, as well as the role played by the ridiculous and caricatured publisher Mac O Mac, are not evidence of a postmodern, self-referential parody on writing and literature; rather, they must be seen as reflecting the tragi-comedy of the intellectual Waldik’s own attempts to speak eloquently, poetically and effectively of the disempowered and marginalised of his own community in France. In addition, if apparently more straight forward humour characterises certain descriptions of the immigrants’ destitute lives –such as the inane bureaucracy of the ‘centre d’accueil des immigrés’ and the Boucs’ surreal, almost childlike ‘performance’, as they pack excitedly for an imaginary trip to New York– they also appear to suggest that laughter is the only means by which the powerless immigrants can retain their sanity in the face of adversity. The text’s emphasis on black humour eventually tips the text from laughter to tragedy and from sanity to madness as the ‘Boucs’ murder a racist businessman who has refused to employ them.

19Images of the suffering and tragedy of African immigrants to Europe also abound in sub-Saharan African filmmaking, not least in Ousmane Sembene’s masterpiece, La Noire de... (1966), which recounts the story of an African maid in Antibes who commits suicide in despair at the realisation that her ‘dream France’ does not exist (a process we examined earlier in relation to Touki Bouki). Although, like Les Boucs, the register of such films is ultimately tragic, much sub-Saharan African filmmaking from this period also adopts a tragi-comic take on the phenomenon of African migration. For instance, the Ivory Coast director Désiré Ecaré made two remarkable tragic-comic films about the lives of Africans in Paris in the late 1960s. The court-métrage, Concerto pour un exil (1967), relates the story of a group of African students who lead a bohemian and often melancholic existence in the Quartier Latin. Although racism is present in the person of the landlord who constantly spies on the students regularly gathered in the cramped confines of the student leader’s bedsit (much of the film’s observational comedy is derived from close depiction of this forced co-habitation) this is by no means a primary concern for Ecaré, who is more interested in poking gentle fun at his self-obsessed African protagonists. The sexually promiscuous métis student (itself an old racist stereotype) is a parodic representation of the black Lothario, bedding as many white female students as possible: one brilliant cutaway from the student and one of his many partners lying in bed to an African street cleaner moving dustbins in the street below is a poignantly comic reminder of the fate awaiting working-class Africans in France. The student leader is almost Falstaff-like in his mixture of bonhomie and treachery: his response to an emergency meeting called to discuss his handling of the students’ union finances is to hold the floor for three hours making debate impossible. His wife finally convinces him to return to Africa rather than ‘wasting their time’ in France; however, this way out of their predicament appears to close at the end of the film. The narrative had opened with a student returning to Africa with the hope of taking up a position as a government minister or a high-ranking civil servant, only to return to Paris shortly afterwards, suitcase in hand, claiming that these posts have already been taken. In the film’s final images, the evicted students wander the streets of Paris suitcases in hand: the comic exaggeration of the long line of characters is combined with a stark sense of their predicament.

20In Ecaré’s follow-up film, the moyen-métrage, à nous deux, France (1970), the director adopts a very different approach, eschewing any sense of realism in favour of a form that plays off different ‘stereotypes’ against each other, while also seeking to subvert them: the voluptuous métisse and her lascivious, older white male lover; the dapper African Don Juan recast as a bowler-hatted city gent who speaks in perfect bourgeois tones; the young black hipster literally dancing his way through the film (to a bluesy soundtrack) with his besotted Scandinavian girlfriend trotting along behind him. Although the film deliberately situates itself within the realm of farce, the ‘reality’ of immigration is always present beneath the surface: the final sequences see the forlorn métisse woman dance from the heart of Paris out to the bidonvilles of the outskirts, reminding the French viewer of the relegation of its unwanted immigrant minorities to the margins of society.

  • 15 Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (Paris: Maspero, 1961).

21A similar play on stereotypes is at work in Med Hondo’s Soleil O (1969), one of the classics of African cinema. The tone of the film is established in the opening sequence in which Europe’s colonisation of Africa is summarised in cartoon format –an African chief is embraced by two European colonial officers, and emerges from the embrace laughing and wearing one of their solar topees– followed by the symbolic ‘staging’ of the conquest and its consequences by a group of ‘representative’ colonised actors: they lose their language as well as their religion, and are then turned into cannon fodder for the colonial armies. The troubling slippage between the tragic and the comic in these opening sequences marks the entire film. After this sweeping panorama, the narrative follows a paradigmatic diasporic African on a journey, which corresponds very closely to Frantz Fanon’s famous three-stage development of the colonised intellectual15. The main protagonist arrives in France as a visibly representative figure: his suitcase is adorned with the flags of many African nations, which signals his status as representative of postcolonial Africa. His thoughts in the voice-over articulate the beliefs and aspirations of so many colonised or post colonial intellectuals: ‘Douce France, je viens chez toi, je viens chez moi’. The patent absurdity of the common ancestry asserted by French colonialism –African schoolchildren were obliged, after all, to read about ‘nos ancêtres, les Gaulois’– announces the slightly less blatant absurdity or hypocrisy of the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, whose (practical) emptiness in everyday metropolitan life the film progressively demonstrates. The film’s exploration of the ‘absurdity’ of colonialism and its aftermath once again (as we have seen throughout this article) reveals the tension between comedy and madness. In the film’s final sequence, the ‘representative’ immigrant appears to lose his mind as he retreats from French society to a forest landscape decorated with posters of 1960s revolutionary icons: Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X. To challenge the neocolonial order is literally to lose one’s reason, to step beyond the bounds of a Western-determined rationality.


22In the mid-1990s, the British Film Institute commissioned a series of documentaries to commemorate a century of filmmaking. The African contribution to this series was the remarkable film-essay, Le Complot d’Aristote (1997), by the Cameroonian filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, in which he reflected on the nature of filmmaking and film spectatorship in Africa. For Bekolo, comedy and satire are essential to African storytelling.

  • 16 Cited in Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers (Minnea (...)

I bought ‘how-to’ books on how to write screenplays. In the beginning of one of those books, the author quoted Aristotle as saying that a good story should inspire pity and fear. I had a problem with that. [...] I am from Cameroon, and I think humour and satire are basic elements of culture. As I was reading The Poetics, I realised that something was missing –comedy. That is why I became paranoid, as the title Aristotle’s Plot seems to indicate. So, the ‘plot’ is not just the plot in storytelling, but also the subplot16.

23Although there is clearly some exaggeration in Bekolo’s claims about the centrality of humour to African culture (and his interpretation of Aristotle is contentious to say the least) there is no doubt, as is demonstrated by the examples studied in this article, that humour constitutes a key element of the aesthetic of much postcolonial African filmmaking and fiction writing. The novels and films that have been analysed here all attempt in different ways to cast a new light on the troubled relationship between Africa and Europe. While such work –especially in the period upon which we have focused, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s– often appears unable to move beyond the stereotypes of the past, we would argue that the attempts by these artists to ‘defuse’ European stereotypes is a vital first stage in the search for a ‘shared’ history through the creation of a ‘shared’ laughter. The use of comedy opens a space in which both Africans and Europeans might learn to laugh at each other and at themselves in ways that do not claim any form of ‘superiority’. As the brilliant Congolese comic author, Emmanuel Dongala argues in a recent interview (that is worth quoting from at length):

  • 17 Eloïse Brezault, ‘Entretien avec Emmanuel Dongala’ (June 2003). Consulted on 24 April 2008: http:// (...)

Avec l’humour, on peut dire beaucoup de choses qu’on ne pourrait pas dire autrement. Et surtout, les personnes qui ne vous auraient pas écouté ou lu, vous écouteront si vous y mettez un peu d’humour. Même les gens dont on se moque au départ vont écouter ce que vous dites parce que c’est drôle, bien qu’après ils se rendent compte de ce qui a été dit! Et cela peut les faire réfléchir. Alors que si l’on écrit de manière beaucoup plus directe, ces mêmes personnes repousseront la critique sans l’avoir écoutée. Je pense que l’humour est très efficace. J’ai toujours à l’esprit un dicton des Noirs-Américains qui dit: ‘Nous rions pour ne pas pleurer’. L’humour permet une mise à distance de la réalité, un certain décalage. On ne se prend pas au sérieux, tout en disant des choses sérieuses17.

24The work produced by the artists examined in this article, and developed by their successors –e.g. Ahmadou Kourouma, Sony Labou Tansi, Alain Mabankou, Balufu Bakupu Kanyinda, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, or the desendants of ‘postcolonial’ immigrants to France, such as Azouz Begag and Faïza Guène– has consistently pushed its readership, whether French or African, to challenge received ideas –through the use of laughter– about central aspects of French colonialism and its legacy. In so doing, this work has effectively begun the process of creating a ‘shared’ vision of the colonial project and its aftermath; from this acceptance of a récit partagé that emphasises the shared history of Europe and Africa may come the ability to develop a genuinely shared laughter that signals greater awareness of oneself and others rather than the hysteria caused by a traumatic and painful past.


1 To cite just two examples, see Raymond Bachollet et al. eds, Négripub: l’image des noirs dans la publicité (Paris: Somogy, 1992) and Jan Nederveen Pieterse, White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

2 Alice Conklin makes this point in relation to the study of French colonial history in her landmark article ‘Boundaries Unbound: Teaching French History as Colonial History and Colonial History as French History’. French Historical Studies, vol. 23, n° 2 (2000), p. 215-238.

3 Linda Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge: Theory and Politics of Irony (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 17.

4 Driss Chraïbi, Le Passé simple (1954; Paris: Folio, 1993), p. 202. Comedy remained central to Chraïbi’s writing throughout his career, not least in his (often whimsical) Inspecteur Ali novels.

5 Nicholas Harrison, Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction (Oxford: Polity Press, 2003), p. 92-111.

6 Mireille Rosello, Declining the Stereotype: Ethnicity and Representation in French Cultures (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998), p. 41-47. Here Rosello is discussing Beur texts and stand-up comedy but her discussion of certain counter-stereotypical strategies is also relevant to the texts under discussion here.

7 Rosello, p. 43.

8 Mongo Beti, Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1956), p. 11.

9 Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Paris: Seuil, 1968).

10 Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge, p. 17.

11 Johannes Fabian, Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), p. 95-101.

12 Bernard Dadié, Un Nègre à Paris (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1959), p. 154.

13 Fabian, p. 101.

14 Driss Chraïbi, Les Boucs (1955; Paris: Denoël, 1982), p. 162.

15 Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (Paris: Maspero, 1961).

16 Cited in Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 229.

17 Eloïse Brezault, ‘Entretien avec Emmanuel Dongala’ (June 2003). Consulted on 24 April 2008:


Professor of French and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling, UK. He has published widely on African –particularly Senegalese– culture, and on the relationship between Francophone and Postcolonial Studies. He is the author of two monographs, Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction (James Currey, 2000), and (with Patrick Williams), Postcolonial African Cinema: Ten Directors (2007). He is also co-editor of several collections of essays, including two with Charles Forsdick: Francophone Postcolonial Studies: A Critical Introduction (2003), and Postcolonial Thought in the French-speaking World (2009)

Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Languages, Cultures and Religions, University of Stirling. Her research deals primarily with francophone postcolonial literature and the cultures of travel and mobility. She has published a number of articles on these subjects and is also the author of Postcolonial Eyes: Intercontinental Travel in Francophone African Literature (2009)

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