Book Review

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr: In Memory of Yambo Ouologuem

In writing The Most Secret Memory of Men, winner of the 2021 Prix Goncourt, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr drew inspiration from the story of the Malian author of Bound to Violence, whose death in 2017 went almost unnoticed. Both novels have just been published in English in the United States.
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr. © Magali Delporte

Roger Grenier, a jury member for the 1968 Prix Renaudot, was the one to announce the prize’s winner: Yambo Ouologuem, a young, 28-year-old writer and high school teacher in France. His first novel, Bound to Violence, looked back at eight centuries of a fictional empire and the reign of the imaginary Saif dynasty. This richly detailed account steeped in violence and eroticism turns an equally merciless eye on both Africans and White colonizers. Unanimously lauded for its quality of writing, the book also drew waves of criticism from both the North and the South. The poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, the godfather of negritude and the then president of Senegal, described it as a “deplorable book” while condemning Yambo Ouologuem for “disowning his ancestors.” In the novel, the writer certainly attacked all forms of colonialism, highlighting the African origins of slavery and the role that local figures played alongside European colonizers.

But the real scandal came about for strictly literary reasons. In an article published in 1971, an American scholar accused Yambo Ouologuem of plagiarizing Graham Greene and André Schwarz-Bart. “In the United States, the U.S. publisher of Bound to Violence pulped its entire stock,” says the introduction to the new French edition (2018). “The scandal then hit France, and even some of the author’s previous supporters turned against him. The Seuil publishing house eventually stopped printing the novel.” After several attempts to continue his work as a writer, including Lettre à la France nègre (1969), Yambo Ouologuem withdrew from the literary world and was forgotten. He died in 2017 in the town of Sévaré in the Dogon region of Mali.

It was not until 2021, and the French publication of Prix Goncourt-laureate The Most Secret Memory of Men, that Yambo Ouologuem returned to the spotlight. Dedicating his novel to the Malian writer, Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr constructed a brilliant work of fiction around a character named T.C. Elimane, who wrote a single book called The Labyrinth of Inhumanity in 1938. The main character, also a young writer, tries to retrace this phantom’s footsteps with growing fascination. From Paris to Dakar and from Amsterdam to Argentina, the narrator puts the pieces of this puzzle together using the stories of those who knew Elimane: his cousin, Siga D., nicknamed “the Spider-Mother,” the journalist and critic Brigitte Bollème, and Thérèse Jacob, who published The Labyrinth of Inhumanity with her husband.

Throughout the novel, whose title was inspired by a quote from Chilian novelist Roberto Bolaño, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr builds a maze of characters and connections, interweaving musings on relations between Africa and the West, the challenge for African writers to escape the ghettos in which people try to confine them, and the frontier between literature and life. Because T.C. Elimane is a silent figure, he provides a blank canvas for desires, fantasies, and questions that must remain unanswered for the creation to remain intact. Flirting with the myth without revealing the full mysteries of the literary work, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has paid Yambo Ouologuem a very special tribute.

The Most Secret Memory of Men by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, Other Press, 2023. 496 pages, 19.99 dollars.

Bound to Violence by Yambo Ouologuem, translated from French by Ralph Manheim, Other Press, 2023. 272 pages, 19.99 dollars.

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.